As immigration reform meanders through Washington DC, activist Ciarán Staunton spoke to John Riordan
JUST over a week ago, Ciarán Staunton called last orders at his popular Midtown Manhattan pub O’Neill’s for the final time.
The famous traditional music venue went out on a high note but there were heavy hearts too, all the more burdened by recent tragedy.
Most of the memories created by the pub are pleasant ones, and the Dec 2005 launch of the influential group Staunton heads, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, is looking more and more like a historic reversal of fortunes of the waning political force of the Irish on Capitol Hill.
But none of the good times outweighed the loss of the always vibrant presence of his 12-year-old son Rory, who died tragically just over a year ago. The devastated father had enough. The shutters went down.
For almost 30 years, Staunton has been fighting vigorously on behalf of fellow exiles since he emigrated in 1982 from Louisburgh, Co Mayo, 40km west of Westport. His son’s death from septic shock has added an extra cause to his busy days and weeks.
Immigration reform lobbyists such as Staunton have watched bills pass, get watered down, and fail miserably but there’s no let up in Staunton’s dedication.
Which might go a long way to explaining why he also feels a deep sense of isolation from the Government back home. With or without Dublin’s support, he says he has no choice but to push the Irish American agenda into unchartered territories across the 50 states.
Staunton acknowledges the need for diplomacy but he has no time for it: “When it comes to the politics of Washington,” he says, “most people are using the iPhone. But the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Embassy are still using the rotary dial-up.
“The policies have never changed. We can only advise them. We’re Irish-American and they’re a foreign government, but ultimately they can open doors.”
It should of course be noted that the Irish Government has funded the ILIR to the tune of €324,637 since 2006, peaking at €71,120 in 2007 before decreasing annually to €27,722 last year.
Sat towards the back of Molly Blooms, Staunton’s one remaining bar, which is located near his home in Sunnyside, Queens, the ILIR president is constantly energetic.
He recalls how the Department of Foreign Affairs would insist that emigration out of Ireland would be crushed by the Celtic Tiger.
As a result, there is a slight feeling in the community of being cut adrift. This sentiment has been growing since long before Staunton arrived. Senator Edward Kennedy’s Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the discrimination of country-by-country immigration quotas but, in the opinion of Kennedy, speaking two years before he died in 2009, inadvertently discriminated against the Irish.
“No Irish government has ever used that sort of language,” Staunton points out.
“The [Department of Foreign Affairs] have been the weak link.”
The department naturally defends its own role in the battle to document the 50,000 Irish illegally residing in the States. On a recent visit to DC, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said efforts to address the issue have been ongoing since he took office in early 2011 and one observer pointed out that the Government’s role has never caused a setback to the movement.
Incoming ambassador to the US, Anne Anderson, who will become the first woman in the job when she moves from her UN role in New York to Washington at the end of August, told Irish Central last week that she will be reaching out to the Republican legislatures who need to be convinced of the merits of immigration reform.
“We will do as much as we can, as much as a government can do, but of course the decision rests with Congress. The government is totally supportive of the effort.”
Staunton hadn’t long arrived in Boston before he got involved with the push for what would soon become known as the Donnelly Visa, named after Congressman Brian Donnelly who managed to pass it through a more liberal Congress in 1986.
But although 20,000 visas were handed out to the Irish, most of those who really needed them were left frustrated.
“More people in Ireland were aware of them than people here,” recalls Staunton. “A lot of people thought it was a trap. They were reluctant to give their names out.”
Donnelly would later point out with regret that “there were more Donnelly visas sitting in mantelpieces in Ireland than there were in Boston”.
“It made me so angry over the years the amount of people who I met with a Donnelly Visa that didn’t take it up.”
The bill provided an amnesty for anyone who arrived before 1982 and catered for nobody who washed in with that mid-1980s tide of emigration.
“I went to Ireland for my first trip home in 1985,” recalls Staunton, “and when I came back after three weeks, I couldn’t believe how many people had arrived from Ireland.”
That inspired the next push and soon the Morrison Visa would be providing 48,000 Irish with papers over the course of three years.
Now, a fruitful alliance with New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn Jew with an affinity for his state’s large numbers of Irish voters, means that if any progress is made, a special package for the Irish will be tacked on should it pass through a reluctant House of Representatives.
Schumer was the first to call Staunton the day his son died.
“The most beautiful…” Staunton begins before trailing off. He then decides to explain the tragedy of his son a different way.
“We sold O’Neills. That place was intertwined with him. Rory came in there and we showed him off. It just destroyed me. He’s there. He’s everywhere.”
At the end of Mar 2012, young Rory suffered an innocuous cut during a basketball game. His condition deteriorated rapidly over a couple of days but the diagnosis was missed and he was sent home from hospital. Two days later, the boy was dead.
“Rory was my best friend. We went everywhere together. I’d come back from Washington and he’d ask me how a certain senator voted. He was only 12 when he died. He had written to the North Koreans to complain about their human rights record. I never knew that. I only found it out after he died.”
Out of that tragedy has emerged the Rory Staunton Foundation, which is aiming to federally regulate diagnosis of septic shock.
New York is the first government in the world to have mandatory sepsis regulations and Staunton hopes the first hearings on the topic will come before the senate in spring. “Rory’s Regulations” are intended to prevent a cruel death which now kills more Americans than Aids.
“There’s no way to describe what it feels like to go in and buy a coffin for your son. The only thing you can do is to prevent other people having to do it.
“We didn’t lose our son. He was stolen from us, he was snatched from us, he was taken from us.”
When Staunton was introduced to President Barack Obama on the night of the inauguration in mid-January, he seized the moment as he does with every elected official.
“Will you push through immigration reform?” he asked him. “And when will the detection of sepsis be federally regulated?”
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