Galwayman Billy Lawless asked to introduce Obama in Chicago

Leading immigration advocate invited to speak before president’s second speech since he announced reform orders

Billy Lawless

Billy Lawless

 

The White House has asked Galway businessman Billy Lawless, now a resident of Chicago, to introduce Barack Obama today in the president’s home town in his latest speech to campaign for support for his immigration actions protecting millions from deportation.

Mr Lawless, who moved from Galway to the US 16 years ago, is a leading immigration activist for undocumented Irish immigrants and other nationalities through his involvement in the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform, the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

“I was absolutely stunned when they called me this morning,” Mr Lawless said. “I feel that it is the work of all the advocacy groups here in Chicago that has really brought this about.”

The president will meet Mr Lawless and other community leaders at the Copernicus Community Centre in Chicago and, after being introduced by the Galway native, he will address a large crowd.

Chicago has one of the broadest mixes of ethnic migrants in the US with large Irish, Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian communities.

Mr Lawless, who along with his wife Anne became US citizens in July, said that he intends to talk about his journey from Ireland to the US in his brief remarks introducing the president.

This is Mr Obama’s second speech since he announced executive orders last Thursday shielding up to five million illegal immigrants, mostly undocumented parents of US citizens and legal residents, from deportation, including, it is estimated, thousands of Irish.

Irish influence

Mr Lawless said he believes that the influence of the Irish lobbying efforts to bring about the changes in US immigration policy was a reason why he had been asked to introduce the president.

“Absolutely – there is no doubt about it,” he said. “The Irish have had an influence. Our lobbying over the last couple of years has paid off. We were a small group but we made our voices heard.”

Mr Obama kicked off his campaign for the immigration reforms at a Las Vegas high school last Friday, which was attended by Mr Lawless.

The president made reference to the undocumented Irish living in Chicago to illustrate that the issue of immigration reform was “not just a Latino issue,” saying: “This is an American issue.”

“I am from Chicago – we’ve got some Irish immigrants whose papers are not in order; we’ve got some Polish immigrants whose papers are not in order; we’ve got some Ukrainian folks,” said the president.

A prominent business figure in Chicago, Mr Lawless owns three restaurants, including The Gage and Acanto on Michigan Avenue, and is planning to open a fourth. His work as an immigration advocate was mentioned by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama’s first chief of staff, earlier this year during an interview with The Irish Times.

Before moving to the US, Mr Lawless ran as a Fine Gael candidate for Galway City Council in 1991 but was unsuccessful. Michael D Higgins topped the poll in that election, which Mr Lawless mentioned when President Higgins visited his restaurant in Chicago last May.