An Immigrant Chef in Astoria Faces an Uncertain Future
Alfonso Verdis’s first job was selling vegetables on the streets of Tlapa in Guerrero, Mexico. He was just 9 years old, trying to support himself after his mother’s death.
“It was hard for me,” he recalls. “I decided to come to [the United States] for that reason. I didn’t want to be doing that my whole life.” Six years later, he arrived in New York City at age 15, but food remained his livelihood.
At first the only people he knew were his two sisters, but they were busy supporting their own young families. Eventually a friend’s brother found him a job in a restaurant.
“That was one of the first options I had here [without legal papers],” he said.
Initially Verdis worked as a dishwasher, and he remembers watching the cooks on the line and dreaming of becoming a chef. “Ever since I started I said, ‘This is for me. This is what I like to do,’” he says.
After six months of washing dishes at the Viceroy, Verdis’s boss at the time, Chef Gregory Baumel, promoted him to be a line cook.
“One day [Verdis] was lugging up a big thing of dishes,” Chef Baumel recalls. “He stopped me in the middle of the stairs and he just said, ‘I want to be a chef. I don’t want to wash dishes.’ He started cooking the next day.”
But because he remains undocumented, Verdis’s career options were limited.
“I was cooking in a lot of different restaurants,” he said. “But I was only able to work up to [become] a sous chef. That was the last option I had without papers.”
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA)—a federal program introduced by the Obama administration that allows people who came to the United States as children without legal papers to live and work here legally—opened up new career possibilities for Verdis.
He applied for DACA in 2013 and received his work permits in 2014. Four years ago he joined Sanfords, a beloved neighborhood restaurant in Astoria, as an executive chef. Now Verdis manages almost 60 employees and presides over a menu that combines Asian, Mexican, Italian and French influences.
“It took a lot of time and a lot of work to [get to] my position right now,” he says. “And I am so happy. I do what I love to do.”
After 20 years working in New York restaurants, Verdis’s next big dream is to open a restaurant of his own.
“It’s going to be really good Mexican food. It’s going to be one of the best places in New York City with authentic Mexican [cooking],” he says. “My sisters cook really well, and my wife is a good cook. I want to involve my whole family. It’s everybody’s dream to have our own business.”
Earlier this fall President Trump announced he would end DACA, putting over 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors in danger of being deported. DACA recipients must renew their permits every two years, and Verdis’s expires next September.
Now instead of dreaming of opening his own family restaurant, he worries about the possibility of being forced to return to Mexico.
“I don’t have anything in Mexico. My whole career I did here, all my friends are here, a lot of my family is here,” he says. “You already proved you want to be part [of this country] and you already did everything [that] they asked you to do. What else can I do?”
It’s not just Verdis who would be affected if he were deported to Mexico. His wife and their children—ages 12, 6 and 2—would move with him.
“My bigger son always tells me, ‘What are we going to do if we go [to Mexico]?’” he says. “What’s going to happen to my kids? Where I come from [in Mexico] right now it’s very dangerous, and I don’t want to bring my family to that place.”
Verdis says he knows other DACA recipients who face the same dilemma.
“A lot of people are suffering right now, people who have kids especially,” he says. “They do not have anybody in Mexico or other countries [where they’re from originally]. So what are they going to do [if they are deported]?”
“This whole thing [rescinding DACA] is very troubling to me,” says Chef Baumel, who stays in touch with Verdis even though they no longer work together. “You’re going to decimate certain industries and on so many other levels it’s wrong. These are good people.”
The restaurant industry relies heavily on immigrant workers. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), an advocacy organization, nearly one out of four workers in the restaurant industry is foreign born. Based on estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, ROC suggests that half of these workers may be undocumented. Additionally, 16% of immigrants under DACA are employed in food preparation and serving—more than any other U.S. industry.
According to Teófilo Reyes, national research director at ROC, rescinding DACA would affect workers in the restaurant industry across the nation.
“It will mean that all those people will have to go back into the shadows,” Reyes says. “It makes work more unstable. It increases the possibility of abuse by the employer and it can also lead to lower wages.”
Despite his fear of deportation, Verdis says he doesn’t regret applying for DACA.
“I want to be part of this nation,” he said. “I’m a Dreamer. I have a lot of dreams for my life and thanks to [the owners of Sanfords Restaurant], I am here working.”
For now, Verdis is trying to put aside his fears of losing DACA and focus on his long-term goal of opening his own restaurant. He wants to expose New Yorkers to the diversity of Mexican cuisine, and show his kids the food and flavors of his hometown and his childhood.
“I want my kids to learn my culture, where I come from, what I used to eat,” he says. “I want my kids to continue that.”
Additional reporting by Rachael Bongiorno
This story is a collaboration with Feet in 2 Worlds, an award-winning news site and journalism training project based at The New School in New York. It originally appeared on the Fi2W website on December 12, 2017, under the title “Ending DACA Casts a Shadow on a Young Chef’s Dream.” For the past 13 years, Feet in 2 Worlds has worked with immigrant journalists from communities across the U.S. to magnify their voices and enhance their skills.