I will always be indebted to the late Congressman Brian Donnelly. His initiative and legislative skill created a visa lottery program that helped me and around 25,000 other Irish people obtain permanent resident status in the United States followed by the option to petition for US citizenship after five years.
Prior to my Donnelly visa, for ten years, first as a student and then as a temporary resident alien (H-1 visa), I lived in immigration limbo with anxiety-inducing annual visa renewals. A deeply uncertain experience, it chipped away at my self-confidence and, at times, good judgment. Knowing that I had a secure future in America gave me a boost in confidence and direction—one that helped me make sound decisions about major life issues: marriage, career advancement, and saving for the future.
With Brian’s recent death, my mind flashed back to November 1989 when I had just four months left on my final H-1 visa before it expired, which would leave me me out of options for staying in the US. In a glum haze, I began deconstructing my decade-long American life while toying with a half-baked plan to make a short return to Ireland followed by a possible move to Australia to pursue a doctorate.
Amid the turmoil of that time, my mother called me from Dublin with promising news: The American Embassy had sent a notification to my Irish address inviting me to apply for a Donnelly Visa! Instead of leaving the US at the end of February 1990 as planned, I would instead be in Dublin early that month for an appointment at the US Embassy regarding my application for an immigrant visa.
My initial reaction to this staggering turn around, however, was one of near disbelief. I kept asking my mother to re-read the information to me because success in the Donnelly Visa lottery had stunned me.
On the one hand, I wanted to jump over the moon with joy. On the other hand, my “doubting Thomas” insecurities kept my mind racing through the next steps in the application process looking for possible bumps or obstacles.
In the run-up to the embassy appointment, one sentence in a dense two-page State Department form caught my eye: “No assurance can be given in advance that a visa will be issued.” The possibility of faltering at the final hurdle weighed heavily on me. In fact, I was a bundle of nerves, obsessively reviewing all aspects of the application – medical examination, documents, forms, duplicates, and photos.
On appointment day, however, everything went without a hitch. I arrived at the iconic circular embassy building in the Ballsbridge area of Dublin at 10 a.m. The meeting lasted less than an hour with a request that I return that afternoon to collect the approved forms guaranteeing my Donnelly Visa.
When I passed along the good news to family members, they erupted in a celebration of hugs and handshakes. The best I could do in response was ball my eyes out. With a huge weight off my shoulders, that night I slept my deepest sleep ever.
I met Congressman Donnelly twice—first at a meeting with Irish immigrants in his Quincy office, and later at Stonehill College when he received the President’s Award for Excellence.
On both occasions, he was down-to-earth, unaffected, unassuming –admirable qualities and the measure of the man.
Both encounters mean a lot to me. The Stonehill one is special and not just because I worked at the college. Rather, I got to shake his hand in gratitude. He was a game changer for me. I am forever proud to be a Donnelly Visa recipient and a native-born Irishman who went on to become an American citizen.