Billy Lawless, a Galway businessman who employs 250 in the Chicago, introduced President Obama on to the stage to speak about his immigration executive action. This Irishman’s story is the perfect example of achieving the “American Dream” and how broken he United States immigration system is.
On Thanksgiving Lawless released a statement on his hope for immigration reform in the United States and spoke about his engagement with President. He wrote “It was a privilege for the Irish to be chosen to play such a significant role..It is the work of all the advocacy groups in Chicago that has brought this about. So I thank you.”
Lawless, and his family, own and run three, soon to be four, bars and restaurants in Chicago, employing 250 people. He came to the United States 16 years ago on an investor’s visa but in order to become a citizen was he had to be sponsored by his son, who had married an American. Early this year Lawless and his wife Anne finally, and proudly, became United States citizens.Speaking with the Sun Times Lawless said “The whole system is crazy. It needs to be totally revamped.”
Lawless grew up on a dairy farm in the west of Ireland. He sold the farm in 1977 to enter the pub trade and soon had success as a restaurateur and hotel owner.
When his daughter earned a scholarship to Amherst College, in Massachusetts, he decided it was time to follow his dream and move to the United States.
In Chicago he had success with his first tavern The Irish Oak, which he sold. He then opened the Gage in 2007, across from the Millennium Park, and also owns Henri next door. His son, Billy Jnr, runs The Dawson and they have now taken another lease on the corner of Dearborn and Randolph which they plan to open in 2016.
He came to the United States on a visa for businessmen who promise to make an investment that employs at least 10 people. However this did not allow him a pathway to citizenship. It was not until his son married a US citizen and then sponsored his mom and dad that Lawless could become a citizen.
It was nine years ago that the successful businessman who has had a lifetime interest in politics began to work as an advocate for immigration reform in the US, wishing to highlight the plight of the Irish undocumented community in Chicago.
In 2006 Lawless took up the cause of getting undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. Politically this was risky move for a businessman, especially one working in the hospitality game. At the time there were an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 undocumented Irish in Chicago but Lawless soon realized that his was just a symptom of a nationwide problem.
He took up the position as leader of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights and eventually they won their fight for driver’s licenses for immigrants. More recently he has been part of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, convincing politicians, Republicans in particular, to support immigration reform.
Lawless is now handing down the reigns of his Chicago restaurant empire to his four grown children and he thought that 2014 would also be the year that he pulled back from his lobbying for immigration reform. However it seems that Obama’s executive action will just be the beginning as Lawless and the Irish activists are determined to see a comprehensive immigration system reform established.
Following his encounter with Obama on Tuesday he said “The Irish community welcomes his reforms on the one hand, but that we really want to see more permanent and more thorough change through Congressional action. I also said that limiting the new deferred action program to just those who have children was unfair. I shared that most of the initial reaction in Ireland has focused on the travel issue and an immediate expectation that undocumented migrants would be able to travel home to reunite with family, to see a gravely ill loved one or attend a funeral, at an early stage and not trigger a 10 year ban.”
The Sun Times article pointed out that one of the first things Lawless did, after receiving his US citizenship, was register to vote.
He said “That’s the thing I’ve missed the most, I’ll tell you.”
Now he’s a voice that the US government will certainly be hearing more of.