As an immigrant who became an American citizen last year and who has advocated for my undocumented brothers and sisters of all ethnic backgrounds over the past decade, I was honored to be invited with my wife Anne to the White House for the arrival ceremony of Pope Francis.
In 1998, Anne and I left our native Galway in Ireland and came to the United States with our four children to begin a new adventure starting a restaurant business as we pursued the American dream. Later that year, we opened ‘The Irish Oak,’ our first Irish-themed Bar/Restaurant in Wrigleyville, Chicago, and hired ten employees. Four years later we opened another - ‘The Grafton’ in Lincoln Square. Today, we own three successful restaurants in downtown Chicago - The Gage and Acanto on Michigan Avenue and The Dawson in West Town - and we employ 260 people. Next year we plan to open three more establishments, which will also be family-run.
This is what we immigrants do. This is what entrepreneurial undocumented immigrants can also do if they are given the chance.
I became involved with immigrant rights in 2005 when approached by young undocumented Irish who asked me to represent them and help them win driver's licenses and legalization. Through an organized long-term initiative, we helped achieve Temporary Visitor Driver Licenses for the undocumented in Illinois. Since 2014, all drivers in the state will now be licensed and insured and over 150,000 driving licenses have been issued to immigrants, with hundreds of thousands more expected to apply.
The inspiration that moved me to devote time and energy in support of our undocumented brothers and sisters springs from my faith. A faith that has been inspired and renewed by Pope Francis and his constant appeal to governments and individuals to take a personal interest in the needs of migrants. As he said last year, “It’s important for the whole church that the welcome of the poor and the promotion of justice are not entrusted only to ‘specialists.”
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This is consistent with my own belief in the goodness and dignity of each person. And I believe that this basic truth is underpinning the whole message springing from Jesus in the Gospel and preached by Francis. I quote from his words:
“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women, and men who leave or are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.” (9/24/13)
“Likewise, we cannot but be moved by the many refugees seeking minimally dignified living conditions, who not only fail to find hospitality, but often, tragically, perish in moving from place to place.” (1/17/14)
One of the uncomfortable truths about migration in our own back yard is the fact that our brothers and sisters are dying in the southern desert along the border with Mexico as they try to make their way to be part of the American dream.
The organization on whose board I serve, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), has consistently drawn attention to the factors that are forcing our neighbors from countries in the south to migrate. I know that this has also been part of the Catholic Church’s message and it is an issue that needs our urgent attention.
It was a joy to hear Pope Francis, as he stood with President Obama addressing our great nation at the White House arrival ceremony, and reminding us that he too is an immigrant. The Pope began his inspirational remarks by saying “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families. I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.” For many Americans, including millions of immigrants like myself, hearing these words from Pope Francis is a reminder that we have been fortunate, through hard work and determination to live the American dream and that it is the responsibility of all of us to keep this dream accessible to others.
* Chicago-based Billy Lawless is a co-chair of President Obama’s ethnic coordination council.