Early history of Emerald Isle Immigration Center
There were a number events, and individuals that that were critical to the foundation of EIIC.
Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM)
The emergence of the IIRM in May 1987 was a catalyst in the mobilization of Irish America to secure a solution for the tens of thousands of recently arrived undocumented Irish immigrants. The organization, which was launched at a meeting of the Cork Association in Queens, quickly developed into an effective grass roots advocacy organization. The IIRM’s lobbying efforts culminated in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990. This Act, signed into law November 29th 1990, established the diversity visa program (AKA the Morrison Visas) and granted a total of 48,000 visas to immigrants from Ireland over a three year period. Three individuals are generally recognized as the founders of that organization: Patrick Hurley, Sean Minihane, and Mae O’Driscoll.
IIRM Steering Committee and the founding members of EIIC
To plan and manage advocacy efforts, the IIRM established a steering committee which met regularly in a basement office which the group had rented in Woodside Queens. This committee played important roles in organizing advocacy efforts, managing fund raising as well as coordinating the advocacy efforts of other branches of the national organization. The composition of that committee changed over time but by mid 1988, the individuals who were leading the work of this committee and who went on to play key roles in the establishment of EIIC were: Sean Benson, Eamonn Knightly, Linda McEvatt, Gary Miley, Sean Minihane, Mary Nolan, Noreen O’Donoghue, Mae O’Driscoll, Frank Schorn. A number of individuals on the IIRM Steering Committee were at the time, and are today, respected leaders in the Irish immigrant community and those community ties were crucial in establishing the reputation of the new organization. Steering committee members: Mary Nolan, Noreen O’Donoghue, Mae O’Driscoll, and Frank Schorn continued to support the organization by serving on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors and remain actively involved to this day. Mae O’Driscoll is a Trustee of EIIC.
Members of the steering committee worked closely with Brian O’Dwyer and he played an important advocacy role with elected officials and in the formal establishment of EIIC as a not for profit tax exempt corporation. Brian joined the Board of Directors in 1991 and served as Chairman; overseeing the growth and development of the center until 2018. In recognition of his decades of leadership and dedication, Brian was named Chairman Emeritus in 2018.
Funding from the City of New York
In May 1988, Sean Benson, who had reached out to other ethnic based community groups in New York, on behalf of IIRM, approached NYC Council Member Walter McCaffrey and requested funding for a center for Irish immigrants. On July 1st 1988, with support from Cllr. McCaffrey, Borough President Claire Shulman, announced a grant of $30,000 to establish an Irish immigrant advice center in Queens.
In 1989, EIIC secured additional funding from New York City, New York State and the Government of Ireland. With the additional funding it was now possible to engage full time staff at the office in Woodside Queens and in October 1989, Sean Benson was appointed executive director. Attorney Lisa Johnston joined the staff in early 1990.
Following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, the work of the Center shifted to helping immigrants apply for the diversity visa lottery, also known as the Morrison visas. The growing budget enabled an expansion in the staff and services beyond the Queens office and in 1993, with invaluable support and guidance from Noreen O’Donoghue, EIIC opened its Bronx office in Woodlawn.
Key individuals who provided support for the development of EIIC
Apart from the work of the steering committee members, and Brian O’Dwyer, there were a number of individuals who played important roles in the early years of EIIC and it is appropriate to acknowledge their valuable support and commitment during those early years:
Don Kelly of Emigrant Savings Bank, developed a program to help recent immigrants gain access to the banking system. Don later joined the Board of Directors and served for many years as President of the Board and was named President Emeritus in 2018
Under the leadership of Paul Finnegan, John Garvey and Dr. Maureen Murphy, EIIC developed programs to encourage new immigrants to take advantage of educational opportunities. These foundational programs expanded the reach of EIIC and led to increased funding for the organization. Paul Finnegan would go on to join as Executive Director of EIIC, The late John Garvey served on the Board for many years, and Dr. Murphy continues to serve on the Board today.
Attorney Lisa Johnston, was a volunteer in IIRM and joined the staff of EIIC in 1990. Lisa brought her legal training and keen analytical skills to help establish EIIC’s programs and would later go on to serve on the Board for many years.
Treasurers – the role of the treasurer is particularly important for a new non-profit organization raising funds from public and private sources. Three individuals served as treasurer at different times during the early years of the organization and we want to recognize their diligence and professionalism in this role: Eamonn Knightly, Bill Dwyer and the late Frank Carvill.
Joanne O’Connell joined EIIC as a volunteer in 1990 and played important roles enhancing the reach and effectiveness of EIIC’s programs in the early years. She later joined the Board of Directors where she served for many years and continues to be actively involved to this day.
EIIC’s mission is firmly rooted in the activism of its founding members. Whether advocating for immigration reform, access to CUNY for undocumented immigrants, or seeking protections for undocumented immigrants who fall victim to crime, EIIC has been, and will continue to be, a champion for immigrant rights. EIIC has continued to expand and grows its services over the past three decades with an important recent milestone being the acquisition of a building in Woodlawn, the Bronx in January 2016.