Seeking help from Senator Robert Kennedy on changing 1965 Immigration Act


As a young Irish American lawyer, Judge John Collins of New York helped lead the fight to overturn the 1965 immigration act which essentially ended legal Irish immigration to America. In this chapter of his memoir he describes efforts to get Senator Robert Kennedy and other leading figures on their side.

At one of our Immigration Committee meetings, a member proposed that our officers - in particular Fr. O'Callaghan, John O'Donnell and myself - go separately to speak to the various Irish organizations. The member stated that while he could provide the organization which he represented with general information on our work, it was not the same as the organization hearing from those organizing the committee. Also if an organization was donating money, they had a right to hear how it would be used. Additionally, those organizations, which had as of yet ,failed to donate might be persuaded by the personal touch.

I had the time and didn't mind the additional speaking chore but hated the idea of begging. Nevertheless, I realized that somehow we had to pay for expenses.

Most of the thirty-two county Irish organizations held monthly meetings, as did about twenty-five AOH divisions and county boards in the metropolitan area, not to mention the GAA teams and other assorted groups. Besides these, there were installation of officer ceremonies, anniversary dinners and communion breakfasts and dinners. Then there were the holiday breakfasts and dinners, celebrating St. Patrick's Day and the anniversary of the 1916 Dublin Rising at Easter.

By the time seven years had passed, I never wished to sit on a dais again. I never wished to eat in public on a platform again and I never desired to eat a mid-morning breakfast of chicken, potatoes and peas.

Each set of remarks delivered had to be separately crafted to fit the audience and to satisfy time limits. I worked for my livelihood in a public office, so I was always conscious that what I might say in public could later be misrepresented. Accordingly, no matter how well, I knew the topic or audience, or how small the group, I prepared my remarks in writing.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, these speaking engagements were excellent training for me as a lawyer. They provided experiences which build confidence. There were no monetary honorariums for these speeches. Sometimes the organization might send a contribution to the committee, but not always. Of course, we often came away from the gathering with a list of individuals who had relatives and friends who needed our help in imigrating.

These occasions, obviously, allowed the immigration committee to get its message across and sometimes to a very large assembled group. Often there was a report of the meeting or dinner in the Irish papers, which provided added publicity for the cause.

A few of the early engagements stand out in memory. At the installation of a new president of the UICA, I was one of the many speakers at the Henry Hudson Hotel Ballroom on West 57th Street. I took at least fifteen minutes to speak my piece, well over the allotted amount of time. Afterwards, I mentioned to Judge Comerford that I had spoken too long. He said, "Not at all. If you have something important to say, don't worry how much time you are taking. Never mind that you exceed the time limit that those in charge have imposed." It was good advice that I never forgot.

Often the dinners and lunches did not start on time. Sometimes we operated under Irish country time. I can recall once being introduced as the next speaker at a County Corkmen's dinner. The time was midnight. On another occasion, I attended a dinner and spoke at a Mason Tenders Union Dinner. It was held in a catering hall on Burnside Avenue in the Bronx. The sound system was not operating. The members and guests were seated in two rooms in an L shaped fashion. It was well after midnight when the speeches began and it took all of one's vocal strength to be heard without microphone in the two rooms. I was heard!

The largest dinner was the NY GAA, 2500 seated in the Grand Ballroom of the Statler Hilton Hotel. The diners, sometimes well plied with spirits, were also sometimes lacking in total attention. If the toastmaster began without obtaining attention and silence, all was usually downhill and the noise accelerated as the speeches progressed. There were two exceptions. One was the former Governor of New York, Malcolm Wilson, who often addressed the dinner. He never began until he obtained silence and he always got it for the duration of his speech. I learned a lot by watching his operation. I was the other fortunate speaker exempted from the noise. In my case it wasn't due so much to technique as the content of the message. The audience was interested. The subject deeply affected them.

Fr. O'Callaghan, in his structured messages (which were always extemporaneous) told his hearers that if the 1965 law was not changed, the GAA organization (composed of many new immigrants) would be the first to go, followed by the UICA and then lastly the AOH. His prediction was right on target.