Illinois Restaurateur Orders Up Immigration Reform

May 26, 2013

Irish immigrant Billy Lawless is helping rally the Illinois business community behind comprehensive immigration reform. Photo: Courtesy of IBIC

Billy Lawless is a former rower, the proud father of two sons and two daughters, and the owner of successful restaurants in Chicago employing 150 people. And next year he’ll finally become an American citizen.

Lawless, 62, came to the United States from Galway, Ireland, 15 years ago on an E-2 visa, which is a visa for businesspeople from certain countries seeking to invest and start a business in the United States. “I was in the hotel and restaurant business for years and wanted to see what you Yanks were like,” says Lawless.

Lawless opened an Irish-themed pub, the Irish Oak, near famed Wrigley Field, and business quickly took off. Six years ago, he opened The Gage, a 300-seat restaurant and tavern steps from Millennium Park. Three years ago, he bought the space next to The Gage and opened his fine dining restaurant, Henri.

Almost from the moment he stepped foot in this country, Lawless has been actively involved in immigration issues. “I was always kind of amazed how the restaurant people especially didn’t give two hoots about immigration reform, but it affects our business more than any other,” says Lawless, who formed the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and sits on the board of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Thirty percent of hospitality workers in Illinois are undocumented. Forty-two percent of the chefs and head cooks are foreign born. Without the immigrant community, the hospitality industry would collapse overnight.”

Most recently, Lawless has helped spearhead the launch of a new, wide-ranging group of Illinois-based businesses, politicians, and others pushing for bipartisan immigration reform. The Illinois Business Immigration Coalition (IBIC) includes leaders from Caterpillar Inc., Motorola Solutions Inc., the University of Illinois, trade groups, and immigration rights advocates.

“Business owners fundamentally understand that the current system is broken, and it’s going to have to be replaced or we won’t make progress,” says Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and a member of the IBIC steering committee. “We’re trying to make sure the Illinois congressional delegation knows that employers in their districts care about the immigration reform bill and that they have the [lawmakers’] backs.”

Business owners fundamentally understand that the current system is broken, and it’s going to have to be replaced or we won’t make progress

Immigration reform is an especially hot topic in Illinois, where immigrants and their children now comprise 26% of the population. The fifth-largest state has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the country and is home to almost 700,000 Mexican immigrants. “If it weren’t for immigration—and Hispanic immigration growth in particular—Illinois would have had a net zero population growth in the last census,” Whitley says.

Illinois has a mixed record on immigration. In January, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law permitting undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. But the state’s immigrant detention centers have consistently been ranked by watchdog groups as the worst in the nation.

However, Lawless hopes that the business community can have a positive influence on the federal debate. “I always said there are businesspeople out there like me who believe that immigration reform can happen. A lot of people just don’t want to be out front, but you have to come forward and make your views known,” he says.

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