Mayo-born New York businessman and chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, Ciarán Staunton began his American journey in the kitchens of Boston's hotels and bars working illegally.
“In the 1980s that’s what you did. The majority of Irish people who were part of the mass exodus to the United States were undocumented,” he says. Mostly working in services and hospitality, many came together in Irish clubs and GAA events around Boston and beyond to discuss ways of becoming legal.
“By the late 1980s, we were reaching out to other groups in cities across the US from Washington to San Francisco. In 1986, I was part of the group who helped secure the Donnelly visas. They opened the flow of Irish people moving to the US.”
But soon, he noticed that many more of America's Irish had no avenues to legalise their position. So, in 1987, Staunton helped form the grassroots Irish Immigration Reform Movement which, by 1990, helped push through the Morrison bill, named after senator Bruce Morrison. It granted legal status to 200,000 people – most of the undocumented Irish immigrants in the country at that time.
“The Immigration Reform Act of 1990 was huge. We got the bill passed through the house and the senate.” Sadly, Staunton says, after that things started getting much more difficult for Irish people seeking US citizenship and working visas.
In December 2005, Staunton founded the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform with Irish Central's Niall O'Dowd and Kelly Fincham working tirelessly to help the around 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US, around 15,000 of them in New York get visas, while also helping the returning Irish.
"We're hoping to get another immigration bill through congress. The republicans and Donald Trump are famously anti-immigration, and the last bill- named after New York senator Chuck Schumer, didn't pass the senate," but Staunton is hopeful now the democrats have taken congress.
“Securing new emigration paths is crucial if Ireland wants to continue its deep links with the US,” he says.
Besides traversing the country advocating on behalf of the Irish immigrants trying to forge a path to citizenship, Staunton also owns Molly Blooms Restaurant and Bar in Queens, New York, and of O'Neill's Bar and Restaurant in Manhattan.
A familiar face on Capitol Hill, he was a major participant in the Good Friday Agreement which brought about peace to Northern Ireland. But the work Staunton is most passionate about is the Rory Staunton Foundation in 2013, which he founded under the most tragic of circumstances.
The death of his son Rory from then little known “silent killer” sepsis in April 2012 changed his family’s life forever. Rory (13) died in a New York hospital four days after scraping his arm playing basketball at school. He was initially sent home from hospital, only for his parents to bring him back, when it was too late.
Rory’s devastated parents were propelled by their “worst nightmare” to ensure that no other child or young adult dies of sepsis.
"Sepsis is the leading cause of death in hospitals. It affects 30 million people globally a year – killing six million babies and children. In the United States, at least 250,000 Americans die a year from sepsis. That's more than breast cancer, Aids and strokes combined and yet its completely preventable, and curable, but at the time of Rory's diagnosis, we were completely unaware of it," he says.
“Our mission is to reduce the number of sepsis-caused deaths through raising public awareness of sepsis through education and awareness programmes to promote faster diagnosis and effective treatment for children and young adults, improving medical diagnosis of sepsis and improved communication between parents and medical staff in hospitals and medical clinics.”
Knowledge is power and that knowledge would have saved his son, he adds.
Through their foundation, they petitioned the state of New York – which, in 2013, became the first state in the union to establish a statewide mandate requiring all hospitals to adopt sepsis protocols known as “Rory’s Regulations”. More than 5,000 New York lives have now been saved by Rory’s Regulations.
Since the foundation was launched, Staunton and his wife Orlaith became household names in the US, appearing on television stations, in the New York Times, and on Huffington Post and CNN.
In 2015, Staunton introduced the Rory Staunton Sepsis Video at the opening of the first National Irish Sepsis Summit held in Dublin. The goal was to make sure that new Sepsis guidelines are put into practice in order to save lives.
He believes there is still has more work to do, and travels between Ireland and the US raising awareness for the silent killer and changing the world in the process.
In his spare time, Staunton has oversees many successful community projects in Sunnyside, New York where the family lives. Staunton’s work brings him around New York and he travels back and forth to Washington and Ireland, where he and his wife plan on raising further awareness for sepsis.
Despite the high costs, he says New York is still a great city for young Irish people to move to.
“There’s a lot happening. New York is still New York. it’s still a very attractive place to be.” And once he can remove the obstacles, Staunton will make it easier for Irish people to live and work there and the rest of the US.