WHEN a 19-year-old man enrolled in a just-started culinary school back in 2006, he had no idea it would land him in jail with an immigration fraud conviction that has been hanging over his head for more than a decade.
The man, who is now 37-years-old, and requested to be identified only as “Chef Gordon”, told the Jamaica Observer that he is still in shock that he was caught in a scam of that nature.
Gordon, who described himself as a “trying youth”, said he was working at a small restaurant in Kingston when he was introduced to the owner of the school by one of his friends.
According to the chef, he was in communication with the owner, who had introduced herself as Marcia, for more than one month. He said the woman told him she was coming to Jamaica from the United States with equipment to open the Global Culinary Institution (GCI). Gordon said after a month of communicating he met the woman at a hotel in New Kingston, registered, and started classes in January.
“So with no qualification, I said this looks like an opportunity weh mi can go for. I went there and signed up for the school. The school was on Montgomery Avenue, [St Andrew]. At first, it started with just four of us and then I see like it accumulated to around 15 persons,” Gordon said.
He told the Observer that throughout the three-month programme the students did only one practical class.
Additionally, Gordon stated that during the programme, Marica informed the class that she was able to get them on the work and travel programme, and so he indicated his interest in doing so.
According to him, he paid $120,000 in all to register for classes and to sign up for the work and travel programme.
Gordon said, after giving her his passport, he did not get back his document with the visa until the day he was scheduled to leave the island, not knowing that he would have needed to go to the US Embassy to acquire a visa.
“When I reached there [the Norman Manley International Airport] the lady there took the passport and looked at the ticket. I had purchased the ticket. The lady tell mi to stand at the side,” Gordon said.
He added that he was taken into a room where he was questioned by immigration officers and he burst into tears and explained what happened. But Gordon was later arrested and taken to the police station at the airport.
While he was being taken in handcuffs out of the airport, Gordon saw another classmate who was to travel on the same day. He told the Observer that the man kept asking, “What is happening?” But fortunately the man never checked in for his flight because he realised that something was wrong.
The young chef was arrested and received $30,000 bail and was ultimately found guilty and handed a $60,000 fine.
According to Gordon, police investigations into the school and the woman named Maricia have yielded nothing.
“From that day I never see or hear back from that woman. Not even the phone number I had for her was working, because over the years I have tried calling it. I even went to the place where the school was and it lock up,” he said.
Despite his criminal record, Gordon has applied for a US visa a number of times over the last 10 years, but to no avail. He has since obtained certificates from HEART/NSTA Trust and City and Guilds, he has since married and is now the father of two children. His criminal record has been expunged.
But, Gordon said when he went to the embassy on December 23, 2022 with a clean police record, he was still denied a visa.
“They said the crime that I did was a vicious and malicious act and I am not permitted to have a visa. And mi seh to miself seh, “Fi the past years dem mi a try understand why mi been getting denial even after mi get a clean police record, and now mi understand,’ ” Gordon said.
Weighing in on Gordon’s predicament, attorney-at-law Dionnie Wynter Pfunde, who specialises in immigration law and is based in Miami, Florida, said: “There is immigrant and non-immigrant [visa]. Non-immigrant means they are asking the Government to visit temporarily. Any application for a non-immigrant visa is discretionary, meaning, the officer can look at your orange shirt and decide I don’t like that orange shirt, so I’m not giving you a visa.
“They can look at other factors. Convictions for non-immigrant visas are a big red flag. A lot of people think, let me expunge it [and I will be fine]. Expunging a conviction for immigration purposes means zero because the question doesn’t ask, ‘Have you ever had a conviction and has it been expunged?’ They will ask you, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ ” Pfunde urged Jamaicans looking to acquire a US visa to tell the truth.
“As a general rule, do not lie to immigration. The immigration officer may not do a lot of checks because you have a clean police record, but it may come back to haunt you at some time,” Pfunde said.
The attorney urged people seeking more information on getting a visa to join the Global Immigration Services Expo on Saturday, January 21 in Kingston, since attorneys from Canada, Australia and the United States will be covering these topics. The expo started Friday.