Chef Byron Gomez wouldn’t have his career if it weren’t for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that temporarily allows certain young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to remain in the U.S. and also receive work authorization. He immigrated with his family to New York from Costa Rica when he was a child, and later worked his way up from Burger King to cook alongside chefs like Daniel Humm and Daniel Boulud. Recently, he appeared on Season 18 of Top Chef, and now he’s the executive chef at 7908 in Aspen, Colorado. Here, he speaks about his life in America as an immigrant, and how DACA allowed him, and many others, to live a life of dignity. — Jaya Saxena
When my parents made the decision to move us to the U.S. from Costa Rica, they were well-established in their careers. My mom had gone to college, one of the first ones in her family to be able to get an education past secondary school. My dad was a salesperson and was doing really well. The reason they left is not because they were at the brink of poverty or were living on the streets; they just wanted a better life for themselves and their kids. Now I realize how brave that was, how scary that was. I was eight years old and undocumented when we moved. And I can confidently say the only reason I am where I am today professionally, as a chef, is because of DACA.
From a young age, I knew that I was growing up in a different environment from those who were here legally in this country. It’s scary, you have no idea what it takes to battle what’s coming ahead in your adulthood. I have lived in the U.S. much longer than I lived in Costa Rica. New York was my home but I felt like an outsider. When I was a teenager, I started working in a Burger King on Long Island. One of the reasons was because it was easier to work there without documentation. But also, I did not want to be a factory worker like my parents. I felt I needed to do something creative with my hands, and I wanted to see opportunities past what my parents and other people in my community were doing. At that time, I had no idea that start would lead me to amazing places.
When DACA was introduced in 2012, I was a young adult, and I was skeptical. I had recently moved to New York City, and had worked my way up to working at Épicerie Boulud. But when someone from outside the immigrant community says they want to help out with something like DACA, you think, “Is this a trap? Are you trying to get all my information so eventually you can report me?” I wanted to give it time. But by 2014, seeing the trial and error, seeing how people in my community were able to go to college, or just open a bank account, gave me more confidence.
It was a life-changing experience. It opened so many doors for me. Receiving my DACA status allowed me to work under chefs Daniel Boulud and Daniel Humm, both of whom are immigrants themselves and who became mentors for me. When I joined the team at Eleven Madison Park, it was the first time I was able to take full advantage of employee benefits. I was able to contribute to a 401(k) and receive employer-based health insurance. I was able to start building credit and open bank accounts. But more than that, it gave me confidence. Now that the 10-year anniversary of DACA is here, I’m able to speak about it and say, “Hey, I was the guy that America didn’t want to give a shot.” And I’m not the only one. There’s close to a million of us here that provide an estimated $7.8 billion to the economy. And that was just from a permit that you guys granted us 10 years ago. So I think it actually is working.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. During the last presidential administration, for those four years, I was waking up and looking on my phone to see how far they might go to take DACA away. You feel like you’re in prison in a place where they preach freedom. You’re walking around places not being able to say, “Hey, this is who I am and this is what I’ve done.” It was a very stressful and fearful period, those four years. Last year, President Biden recognized Immigrant Heritage Month with a proclamation for the first time, nine years after DACA started. But on July 6 there’s a court hearing that’s going to determine whether DACA protections will continue, and it’s not looking too well for recipients. After all that’s been said, after all that’s been promised, there’s still that situation.
But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to be scared of stepping out. In 2021 my season of Bravo’s Top Chef aired. That was the first time I had ever talked so publicly about being a DACA recipient and the outpouring of support was incredible. I was nervous to talk about it at first — would people judge me? Would they see me differently? The number of parents and kids who reached out letting me know that I inspired them made me more proud than I’ve ever been before. Today I’m proud to be a prime example for immigrants and how DACA can change a life. A lot of fear about and within the immigrant community is due to lack of knowledge and education. If I can change one person’s mind about the value that immigrants bring to the United States, and show them how important DACA is, my job is done.
I just think there needs to be a better way for the government to honor those who have honored this country. I want to be part of this society. And the more we educate people, the more we start to speak about this, the more examples that we show of this program, the more it will give people a different outlook. We are no different from anyone. We have aspirations, we have dreams. It just takes a couple of people to speak up and to do a movement for these things to get recognized.