A lawyer, lobbyist and former U.S. congressman, Bruce Morrison is not an unlikely hero. Since his days as a student organizer at the University of Illinois, where he founded and chaired the Graduate Student Association, to the ground breaking immigration reform he ushered in at the close of his four terms in Congress, he has long held justice for the overlooked as a top priority.
He is, however, an unlikely Irish hero. Morrison was raised as a Lutheran in Northport, Long Island by Dorothea and George Morrison, adopted parents of German and Scots-Irish heritage. He took an interest in chemistry from an early age, graduating from MIT in three years and then pursuing a master’s degree in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
There, his work rallying the graduate student body sparked his interest in social justice, and in a turn of pace he applied and was accepted to Yale Law School, graduating in 1973. The bonds he forged with some of his classmates, including a couple named Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, would later prove important. He joined the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, which specialized in providing legal aid to New Haven’s poor, and quickly rose to become its executive director in 1976.
Morrison entered politics in 1982, winning the Democratic primary and a grass roots campaign to represent Connecticut’s third congressional district. His eight years in the House of Representatives were marked by a fierce dedication to domestic social issues and international human rights. In addition to serving on the House Banking Committee, House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Children, Youth and Families, he fought hard to improve housing conditions and opportunities for the poor, becoming an expert in the field. His human rights involvement took him to Cuba, Chile, South Africa, Nicaragua and Northern Ireland.
Morrison was introduced to the Irish cause in 1983, during his Freshman term in congress. He initially joined the Friends of Ireland, a group that at the time included Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy, but after two years he accepted the invitation of Richard Lawlor, then vice-chairman of Irish Northern Aid (Noraid), to join the Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs. In 1887, he took that first trip to Ireland, visiting Dublin and Belfast. He met with Irish and British officials, and with Sinn Féin’s leader Gerry Adams – with whom, at that point, the American government still refused to communicate. His commitment, which would prove crucial to the ceasefire and peace process, was solidified.
However, Morrison first gained notoriety in the Irish-American community not for his role in making Northern Ireland a priority in Washington, but for his work on immigration reform. During his last term in Congress, Morrison served as chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee. That year, he authored one of the most comprehensive revisions to immigration law of the 20th century, and with the help of his allies, including Senator Ted Kennedy, saw it through to legislation.
The Immigration Reform Act of 1990 created new opportunities for skilled workers and introduced the Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery. It increased by 200,000 the total visas to be granted each year, and also saw a certain number allotted to applicants from countries that had been out of favor since the immigration reforms of 1965, including 48,000 specifically for the Irish. These visas soon became know as the Morrison visas, and their author’s name became synonymous with the new lives they granted to so many.
Morrison retired from political life in 1990 after an unsuccessful bid for Governor of Connecticut. No longer an elected official, he was able to act more forcefully and directly than before. Morrison returned to legal practice, founding his own firm specializing in immigration law. In 1992, he supported his old law school classmate in his run for President, serving as co-chairman of Irish Americans for Clinton-Gore, a role he would reprise for the 1996 election.
After the Morrison visas, the former congressman was famous in Irish circles. But it was not a position he would take for granted. As he explained in a 1997 interview with the Hartford Courant, “Here I had this fortuitous coming together of opportunities that had made me a hero in Irish America and in Ireland . . . and it was like, ‘That’s great, I can just bask in the glory of it all and get upgraded on Aer Lingus, but I’m an activist. That’s who I am. How do I take this and make something different in the world?’”
In addition to representing and rallying the Irish-American contingent in support of Clinton, Morrison advised and briefed him on Northern Ireland. Once in office, the new president followed through on his promise to devote attention to the struggle for peace.
Morrison continued to provide advice and information to President Clinton throughout his two terms in office. Traveling frequently to Ireland and the North, the former congressman became one of the Americans for a New Irish Agenda (ANIA), a group that included publisher Niall O’Dowd and fellow Hall of Fame honorees Chuck Feeney and Bill Flynn. In September 1993, they made an unprecedented eight-day visit to Northern Ireland, to deepen the understanding of all sides and to communicate the possibility that a cessation of violence would be met with U.S. support.
In Dublin, the members of ANIA met with then-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Jean Kennedy Smith, who had just been appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. In Belfast, they were received by Loyalist figure Gusty Spence, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party and Gary Mitchell of the Ulster Defense Force. They talked at length with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. After their departure, it emerged that the IRA had quietly called a ceasefire for the duration of the visit.
Over the next few years, ANIA would continue to assist with negotiations, leading to the IRA ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, and, also in 1994, the U.S.’s decision to grant Gerry Adams a 48-hour visa , allowing him to attend a peace conference held by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
Throughout this period, Morrison served from 1992 to 1997 on the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which conducted a comprehensive study of U.S. immigration law. During the Clinton Administration, he was also appointed by the president as chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Board, an independent agency regulating the twelve Federal Home Loan Banks. In this role from 1995 to 2000, he developed and implemented a far-reaching strategy to modernize the business of the banks.
Now head of the Morrison Public Affairs Advocacy Group, which he founded in Maryland in 2001, Morrison provides strategic advice and representation to a range of clients, and still practices as an attorney, specializing in immigration. He lives in Bethesda with his wife, Nancy, and their son Drew. His legacies are many, but he will always hold a special place in Irish history and regard.