Award-winning chef Jose Andres says he came to the United States with $50 and a set of cooking knives. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
December 6, 2013

Jose Andres is a chef and restaurant owner.

The first time I saw America was from my perch on the mast of a Spanish naval ship, where I could spot the Statue of Liberty reaching proudly into the open, endless American sky. At night, I would often wonder whether that sky was the explanation for the stars on the American flag — put there so the world would know that this is a place of limitless possibility, where anyone from anywhere can strive for a better life.

I recalled that starry sky on Nov. 13, when after 23 years in America, my wife, Patricia, and I were sworn in as United States citizens. The naturalization ceremony in Baltimore, attended by 72 other tearful immigrants from 35 countries, was a moment I had dreamed about since the day I arrived in America with little more than $50 and a set of cooking knives, determined to belong. I eventually settled in Washington, where my partners and I have been fortunate to build a restaurant business that now employs thousands of Americans across the country.

And yet, I have become a citizen at a time when legislation is stalled in Congress that would afford millions of other immigrants the chance to earn their citizenship, too. With this bill, which already has the support of many Republican and most Democratic senators, we are closer than ever to achieving immigration reform. So I’d like to address the members of Congress who still have concerns about passing the bill:

I understand that this is a difficult and complicated issue. But we are not asking for an open-door policy that allows unregulated immigration. Indeed, the bill before Congress would do more to secure our borders than any other law in history. What we’re asking is to give the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already part of America’s DNA a chance — a chance to prove they are worthy of citizenship; a chance to contribute more to this incredible country; a chance to belong.

The fellow immigrants I’ve known and worked with over the years, those with legal status and those without, are here for the right reasons. They don’t want to cause any trouble, take any handouts or steal anyone’s job. Many already pay taxes and have jobs — tough, dirty, exhausting work that America depends on, such as picking our tomatoes, cleaning our fish or canning our products on cold factory floors for low wages and no benefits.

Because many of us took great risks to come here and support our families, immigrants tend to have an especially strong work ethic. My friend Rodolfo started his career in America tiling the floors at Jaleo, our first restaurant. But he soon began washing dishes and baking bread overnight, sometimes holding two or three jobs while he learned how to cook. And today, that construction worker from Bolivia is a head chef, a restaurant investor, a wonderful father and a proud American citizen.

If other immigrants had the chance to pursue their dreams like Rodolfo, all of America would benefit. As legal residents, immigrants would contribute more in taxes, spend more at our businesses, start companies of their own and create more jobs. Immigration is not a problem for us to solve but an opportunity for America to seize.

As immigrants, we understand better than most that to be an American is a privilege that conveys not just rights but responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities are pledging allegiance to our flag, obeying our laws and learning a new language. But we also have an obligation to give something back — to enrich the American mosaic with our unique cultures, traditions and ideas. It is for this reason I plan to reopen my restaurant, America Eats in a new location in celebration of the culinary contributions that immigrants have stirred into our nation’s ever-churning melting pot.

For the menu, I researched some of the earliest recipes brought to America, and as I came across one labeled “Gaspacho ” in an early-19th-century book titled “The Virginia Housewife,” I couldn’t help but think of the past — not just the first time I saw America as a sailor in the Spanish navy but the first time a Spaniard ever arrived on America’s shores.

Five hundred years have passed since Juan Ponce de León set foot in Florida looking for gold, and today I can proudly say that I have found mine: my wife and daughters, my friends and colleagues, and the new citizenship my wonderful country has given me. While I will always be proud of where I come from, I have never been more certain of where I belong.

Right now, the House of Representatives has a chance to make a difference in the lives of millions by allowing a vote on immigration reform, a difference that would benefit America for generations to come. I don’t envy Speaker John Boehner’s difficult position. I know he loves this country dearly, and I imagine the hopes he had when sweeping the floor of his father’s Cincinnati bar were not so different than those of a young Spanish sailor who believed that if he loved America, America would love him back. All I ask is that he considers the millions of immigrant families who hold those same hopes.

We may all come from different places and backgrounds, but we still look with awe to that same remarkable sky, and we want nothing more than the simple chance to reach for our own American dream.

From “The Virginia Housewife,” by Mary Randolph (1824): “Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a salad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skin taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkled with pepper, salt, and chopped onion; do this until the bowl is full, stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard and oil, and pour over it; make it two hours before it is eaten.”