Caribbean immigrant dreams of becoming a chef

By Courtney Gross, NY1
Last Updated: Wednesday, May 17, 2017, 12:20 PM EDT

Reporter Courtney Gross features a Caribbean immigrant working as a cook's helper as part of the Spectrum News special "Immigration in America.” Watch more on Spectrum News’ hour-long special at 7 p.m. with live town hall at 8 p.m. May 24 | 7 p.m. May 26 | 7 p.m. May 29.

Jackson is soft-spoken with just the slightest accent.

In many ways, he’s a New Yorker. But he wasn't born here. He came here illegally from the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

He went to school in the Bronx, but he never received a high school diploma.

Now he spends much of his time working at a restaurant in Washington Heights – a position that comes with long hours and low pay. But he takes it. Jackson says there are only a handful of industries that will hire him. 

“We wanted to come here to seek a better life,” Jackson says, referring to his trip from St. Martin in 2008. He had a two-week tourist visa that has long since expired.

He is now a cook's helper. He washes dishes, chops vegetables and speaks of dreams of one day becoming a chef and completing his G.E.D. According to the Pew Research Center, nine percent of the workers in the service industry in 2014 were undocumented -- Jackson and his mother included.

It’s the industry’s worst kept secret: Beyond your brunch menu and farm-to-table cuisine are chefs, dishwashers and servers from faraway countries.

One restaurateur explains Americans are not lining up to the door to cook your food or wash dishes at your local pub. Immigrants are.

Don’t ask, don’t tell, another explains. You want to hire someone? Well, cross your fingers and hope his or her social security number is accepted by payroll. If it is, you’re in the clear. No questions asked.

Jackson, of course, asks questions. Like why can’t he get paid a decent wage? Or will he ever be accepted as a U.S. citizen?