Brown: From Irish dairy farm to immigration reform to U.S. citizenship

Written By By Mark Brown Posted: 08/14/2014, 06:39am

It’s been 16 years since Billy Lawless came to Chicago from Ireland to build his fortune in the tavern business and nine years since he began sticking his broad neck out to put an Irish face on the need for immigration reform in the U.S.

On Thursday, a very successful and prosperous Lawless and his wife Anne were sworn in as U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony here along with 137 other new Americans.

I’d like to think there’s a connection there —between Lawless’ tireless advocacy for immigrants of all persuasions and the success he’s had in the hospitality industry, most recently as owner of The Gage, a popular restaurant on Michigan Avenue.

It takes guts for a businessman to get involved in the toxic political debate over immigration reform. Most opt to stay on the sidelines. The barrel-chested Lawless plowed right into the middle as if it were a rugby scrum from his youth in Galway.

I remember the angry letters I got when I first wrote about Lawless in 2006 after he took up the cause of making drivers licenses available to immigrants living here without legal permission.

Rather than back down, Lawless just kept getting more deeply involved.

Back then, Lawless and family were running The Irish Oak in Wrigleyville, and his original concern was for the estimated 5,000-7,000 Irish immigrants then living in Chicago illegally, many of whom told him about their drivers license problems.

In taking up their cause, Lawless came to realize it was just one symptom of the broader immigration crisis in the U.S.

Lawless became a leader in the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which eventually won passage of a drivers license law for immigrants, and more recently has been at the forefront of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, which has had success in recruiting business leaders to help convince Republican politicians in particular to support immigration reform.

It was Josh Hoyt, former boss at ICIRR and now executive director of The National Partnership for New Americans, who first told me not to underestimate the influence of Lawless’ passionate Irish brogue in getting the attention of lawmakers in both Springfield and Washington, where many saw the immigration issue as solely a Hispanic problem — and therefore not theirs.

Now Hoyt is dedicated to getting 8.8 million LEGAL immigrants such as Lawless to obtain their citizenship and register to vote.

Lawless’ work has made him many friends in politics.

One of them, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, paid tribute to Lawless’ new citizen status Thursday in a speech from the floor of the Senate, hailing the restaurateur as a “great defender not just of the rights of Irish immigrants but all immigrants.”

In an interview Friday at his 37th floor South Michigan Avenue condominium, Lawless told me his story of growing up on a dairy farm, selling it in 1977 to enter the pub business and parlaying that into success as a restaurant and hotel owner.

All the while, though, Lawless harbored dreams of moving to the U.S. When one of his daughters won a rowing scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, Lawless decided it was time to come over.

After his initial success with The Irish Oak, which he later sold, Lawless opened The Gage in 2007 just across the street from Millennium Park and caught the wave of its popularity. He also owns Henri next door, currently closed for “re-concepting” as an Italian restaurant.

His son, Billy Jr., runs The Dawson, which opened late last year at 730 W. Grand, and they have taken a lease in Block 37 at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph for another Gage-like pub to open in 2016.

Lawless is gradually cutting back and turning over the business to his four adult children, who all along have helped him and his wife operate it.

Lawless came to the U.S. on a visa reserved for businessmen promising to make an investment that employs at least 10 people, but which doesn’t allow for becoming a citizen. He now has 250 employees, but it wasn’t until his son married a U.S. citizen, became a citizen himself and then sponsored mom and dad that Lawless had his own path to citizenship.

“The whole system is crazy. It needs to be totally revamped,” Lawless said.

Lawless thought 2014 would also be the year he pulled back from his immigration reform activities, expecting Congress to move forward with legislation. But that no longer seems likely, and like others in the movement, Lawless is now looking for President Barack Obama to enact reforms on his own.

The first thing Lawless did after becoming a citizen was to register to vote.

“That’s the thing I’ve missed the most, I’ll tell you,” he said.

Now his voice is that much stronger.

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