Ireland House Oral History Collection

Sean Benson

Sean Benson, 29 November 2005. Photo by Linda Dowling Almeida.

Created/Published:

29 November 2005

2 hours, 15 minutes

Preferred Citation:

Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University

Biographical Note:

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.

Click on image to enlarge.

  1. 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.

Interviewers:

Photo Credit:

  1. 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.
  2. Sean Benson, 29 November 2005. Photo by Linda Dowling Almeida.

Notes:

  1. Sean Minihane was one of the founders of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement.
  2. Congressman John Joseph Moakley (D-MA) (1927–2001)
  3. At this time Harris Miller was with Holt, Miller and Associates, the lobbyists hired by the IIRM.
  4. Adrian Flannelly, Chairman and CEO of Flannelly Promotions Ltd and Irish Radio Network USA
  5. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA)
  6. Jerry Tinker, staff director of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs
  7. Congressman Bruce A. Morrison (D-CT)
  8. Thomas S. Foley (D-WA), Speaker of the House of Representatives
  9. Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-MA)
  10. Brian O’Dwyer of O’Dwyer and Bernstien, LLP, active in Irish American and Democratic politics in New York City.

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