29 November 2005
2 hours, 15 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Sean Benson was born on 1960 in Carlow Town, Co. Carlow, Ireland but raised in Naas, Co. Kildare. His father, Tom, a dentist, was originally from Killeshandra, Co. Cavan and his mother, Cathleen, from Newcastlewest, Co. Limerick. Benson was educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in Naas and then at Trinity College Dublin, from which he received a degree in management in 1984.
Unable to find work in Ireland, at a time when unemployment there was hovering around 19%, Benson moved to New York City in October of 1985, entering the United States on a six month tourist visa. Overstaying that visa put Benson in the immigration twilight zone. He was not alone; an estimated 50,000 Irish were similarly undocumented (illegal) across America in the mid-1980s. Calling themselves the New Irish, most, like Benson, lived with other young people from Ireland in a tight subculture bounded by fear of deportation and work that, while plentiful, often did not utilize their educational skills to the fullest potential.
Benson’s arrival in the United States coincided with efforts by members of Congress to rectify some of the disadvantages of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Congressman Brian Donnelly (D-MA), in particular, succeeded in having an amendment attached to the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act that provided for 40,000 non-preference visas (NP-5) over three years. Visa recipients were selected by lottery and there was no limit on the number of applications that could be submitted. The lottery was widely publicized in Irish American communities, with the result that 16,000 of the available visas were won by the Irish. One of these coveted Donnelly Visas went to Sean Benson, who had submitted four hundred applications and was rewarded with a green card (permanent resident alien status) in July of 1987.
This experience led Benson and others to organize the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM) in May 1987, a grassroots group whose objective was to legalize the status of undocumented Irish immigrants by working for legislative reform. This small New York-based organization soon spread across the nation with branches springing up in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose, CA. For three years Benson worked tirelessly on the reform campaign, raising funds as well as awareness about the issues involved, and contacting legislators including Congressman Bruce A. Morrison (D-CT), the Chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). With the passage of the Family Unity and Employment Opportunity Immigration Act of 1990 (H.R.4300), which granted an unprecedented 48,000 out of 120,000 available “Morrison Visas” to the Irish in America over three years, the IIRM achieved much of what it had set out to do. That year the IIRM ceased activity (though it did not officially dissolve), leaving other, more practical immigrant needs to its parallel social services organization, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center (EIIC), located in Woodside, Queens.
Sean Benson was instrumental in the establishment of the EIIC in 1988, to help Irish immigrants apply for visas as well as obtain bank accounts, driver’s licenses, housing, medical insurance, education, legal protection and citizenship. He served as Executive Director of the EIIC until 1995, broadening its outreach to immigrants from all over the world.
In 1995 Benson received an MBA in Finance from New York University and, at the time of this interview, worked for AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company in financial services. His wife, Laure Travers, emigrated from Toulouse, France in 1991 and opened Clandestino, a bar at 35 Canal Street in Manhattan, shortly after this interview.
Excerpt No. 1
Making the decision to leaving Ireland in 1985Disc 1, 11:35–14:14
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
SB: It was the furthest thing from my mind that I would have to leave. And it sort of – it’s something that starts to – you don’t certainly wake up in the morning and decide “I’m going to emigrate” – it’s something that just sort of seeps in over a period of months, that you realize that, “Wow, I’m actually going to leave my country” and then “I’m going to leave my family” and all that sort of stuff. So that’s a – I think nobody expected – none of us, the people I met here – none of us expected to be in this situation; which sort of radicalized us from the outset, because we were pretty upset about having to leave, because we didn’t expect to do that, having to do that. So we were already pretty radical when we got here. We just didn’t find – we just hadn’t found the right source, right avenue, to exercise our radicalness. Is that a word?
RP: How did your family feel then about you emigrating? Did your brother and sister stay in Ireland?
SB: My brother had to leave as well. I remember the day I left, it was very sad. My mother was crying, my sister was crying, and my father was pretty upset. And, um, it was just sad, you know, it was very sad and very emotional. Because, I think for them, it was also – they never thought that their children would leave. I mean, they saw this happening when they were growing up but it was, I think, just such a shock for them that this was happening again. And I think that – they thought, gosh, you know, when people left for America they didn’t come back. And so, even though that’s not the case today, people thought that, you know, they’d never see many of these folks again.
LA: Do you think they took it as a personal failure, or as just a general, “Oh God, how did this happen?” For someone who’s a dentist, I’m sure he [Benson’s father] must have felt like he had achieved success in his life.
SB: It’s a good question and I don’t have the answer. But I think maybe they were very disappointed – whether it was a personal failure? I think they knew – they blamed the government hugely for it – so I don’t think – I think they did everything they could for me. And other people that I know, I don’t think their parents blame themselves. I don’t think so.
Excerpt No. 2
The dynamics behind the Irish Immigration Reform MovementDisc 1, 45:15–48:40
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
LA: I’m struck, because at the time you were twenty-five, what was the average age, whatever it was –
SB: Yeah, twenty-four, twenty-five –
LA: Twenty-four, twenty-five. That is really an – almost an arrogant, very aggressive attitude for someone so young, a group so young to be that focused, and to be that positive that “this is what we want, and” – don’t you find that? You know, all these years later? It’s really – I mean, because the story is so remarkable –
SB: Yeah, um –
LA: Unless it was just out of necessity. I mean, it’s just I find that focus so –
RP: Or, you know, without trying to sound in any way condescending, it’s a little naïve to think that you can just walk in and change the way that the United States immigration laws work.
SB: Um, we’d been brought up pretty confident in Ireland. And I think that was the difference, was that we were brought up to believe that we could actually do things. And so we brought that self-confidence out here, and, you know, [Sean] Minihane (1) is an engineer, you know, I had my own background, you know, we didn’t – we weren’t brought up to dig potatoes. We were brought up to do something better. And so we – we, we didn’t feel like we had to, you know, excuse ourselves to anybody when we came here, so. And also, there was a lot of bonding between us, and that also reinforced our self-confidence. And so even though we were kind of young, we – we bounced an awful lot of ideas off each other, and uh, we all had always been interested, all of us had all been interested in politics, and, you know, we just sort of knew – we just felt that this was the way that we – we just had a – we just had a really, really narrow vision, and we knew that the solution to our – our problem was to get federal law changed. And so we just barreled down that road, we didn’t know exactly how we were going to get there, but we learned – we learned a lot, and, and every time we learned something, we, um, you know, we became better at it. I mean, the first year we were down in Washington we didn’t know that much, but the second – the second year we were down there we were – people were returning our phone calls. So we knew we, you know, we just knew – we began to figure it out as we went through it. We didn’t know at the start, but we eventually figured it out.
LA: So it was a combination of your – your education, your focus, and the fact that you – like you said, I mean, it was a very narrow goal that you were – you were looking at. It wasn’t a huge – a huge package. Um, and, and I guess the radicalism you felt because of having to leave Ireland, and then what you faced when you got here, I mean it seems like it was sort of this – “Perfect Storm” –
LA: To use a poor analogy, of circumstances and emotions and backgrounds at that point in time.
SB: Yeah. I mean, we – we were all united in a – I mean, we were smart I think, politically, I think we were all worried about, uh, first of all, the organization falling apart. Our biggest concern was that we would fight, and, um, somehow, uh, split.
SB: And so, we were – we were really, the internal politics were very, very important to the group, so that we were not going to see that happen. And that was – that was a critical thing in our success. I mean, we exploded, and – and just blew apart like a, um, right after the whole thing ended. But we were smart enough, even though it became rocky towards the end, to keep it together as long as – as long as we were united in the goal.
Excerpt No. 3
The last forty-eight hours before H.R. 4300 was passedDisc 2, 22:34–26:19
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
SB: I mean, as it went down through the process, even in the last, uh, forty-eight hours before the bill actually went through, um, it was such, you know, relatively high drama, because the bill actually – the bill, as it went to, to the floor, actually was voted down. Um, and then, had to be resurrected by the Rules Committee then. Joe Moakley (2) just brought it back to the floor again for a second vote, uh, the next day. I mean, that doesn’t happen often, so.
SB: But the bill – the bill went down. I mean, Harris Miller (3) called us. We were out celebrating, in Queens, you know, because, you know, the bill is –
LA: Well, yeah!
SB: We got the bill to the floor, and we were like, “Yeah!” And then he called us and said, uh, the bill – the bill, the bill went down.
SB: And we were just –
LA: You were crying in your beer…
SB: No, we were just like, Jesus, what are we going to do? And then, uh, the initial thought was, let’s just go down to Washington, and then we, that was, we quickly dismissed that, and we decided, okay, let’s just go home, and go to sleep, and wake up tomorrow morning early, and get on the phone. So, we got on the phone, we got, we got, we got Flannelly (4) involved, and others, and we got a lot of people calling down to Congress.
LA: Adrian Flannelly.
SB: Yeah. But, unbeknownst to us at the time, um, Ted Kennedy (5) was on the phone to about fifty members of Congress.
LA: No kidding.
SB: Yeah, and he told them to, to get their act together and vote for this goddamn thing. He personally called –
LA: Really. Who told you? How did you find out? How did you find out who made the calls?
SB: Uh, Jerry Tinker (6) told us.
SB: His uh, his aide. So, later he said, “We had to move mountains,” in order to get this bill, but, you know, we did what we had to do. So between him and Joe Moakley – Morrison (7) actually, when the bill went down, left Congress and went back to Connecticut. He left town. He left Washington and went home. He was convinced that that was it.
LA: It was over.
SB: Yeah. But Kennedy and Moakley, uh, between them, and I don’t know who was – who was the Chairman – oh yeah, the guy from Spokane, we had a connection in Spokane as well. It was, uh, who was the, uh, Speaker of the House at the time? It was, um, anyway, he was from Spokane, Washington, another Irish American (8). But um, yeah, he was very helpful to us as well, the Speaker, in sort of, in pulling back.
LA: And so then it went through –
SB: The second time it went through, yeah. Joe Kennedy (9) voted against the bill the first time.
LA: What did his uncle think about that?
SB: He got ratted out. We had three hundred calls into his office by twelve –
RP: Yeah, call him on the phone!
SB: Yeah, we went on Adrian Flannelly, and we said, “Joe Kennedy just voted against the most important piece of legislation for the Irish in twenty-five years. Here’s his number, tell him how you feel.” So he was pissed off that he got hundreds of calls, and then he wanted to see – meet with us. He came down to New York, wanted to meet with Brian O’Dwyer (10), and um –
LA: This is in the two days leading up –
RP: This was…
SB: No, this was like –
LA: Oh, afterward…
SB: Two days later, I’m sorry. But he wanted to meet with us and give us a piece of his mind, but we were like – the bill was through at that time, and it had passed, and like, you know, “Sayonara.”
RP: Yeah, who cares. So it was one day it went down and then the next day –
SB: Yeah one day – it was a Friday, and then I think it was a Saturday, then, that it was resurrected. I can’t remember exactly how it was, but there was a special – session, or whatever the heck they did. But they had a vote, and it passed the second time. So, it was lots of drama, right at the end.
- Rachel Perry (RP)
- Linda Dowling Almeida (LA)
- Sean Benson and Mae O’Driscoll, Washington, D.C., 8 March 2006. Courtesy of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center website at http://www.eiic.org/imm-reform.htm.
- Sean Benson, 29 November 2005. Photo by Linda Dowling Almeida.
- Sean Minihane was one of the founders of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement.
- Congressman John Joseph Moakley (D-MA) (1927–2001)
- At this time Harris Miller was with Holt, Miller and Associates, the lobbyists hired by the IIRM.
- Adrian Flannelly, Chairman and CEO of Flannelly Promotions Ltd and Irish Radio Network USA
- Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA)
- Jerry Tinker, staff director of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs
- Congressman Bruce A. Morrison (D-CT)
- Thomas S. Foley (D-WA), Speaker of the House of Representatives
- Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-MA)
- Brian O’Dwyer of O’Dwyer and Bernstien, LLP, active in Irish American and Democratic politics in New York City.
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