He’s a senior partner at O’Dwyer & Bernstein, LLP, a Manhattan law firm founded by his late father that focuses on personal injury, labor relations, commercial litigation and immigration.
O’Dwyer is the founder of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, a Woodside-based organization that advocates for and serves immigrants in the area.
In 2011, he was appointed as a commissioner of the United States National Commission for UNESCO by Hillary Clinton. He served as national president of his college fraternity, Kappa Sigma, and will soon chair the board of the CUNY Law School Foundation.
On March 13, he will deliver the keynote speech at the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Annual St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon at Antun’s in Queens Village. Three days later, O’Dwyer will walk down Fifth Avenue as the grand marshal of New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“It is the greatest honor that any Irish-American can have in this town,” he said.
O’Dwyer is well known for his advocacy of immigrant causes. In addition to creating the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, O’Dwyer, who has a master’s degree in Spanish-language literature, was a former chairman for the organization Asociación Tepeyac, which serves the city’s growing Mexican community.
One of his most memorable achievements was convincing former Mayor Edward Koch to allow all immigrants, regardless of documentation status, to enroll in the city’s public university system.
O’Dwyer said immigrants rights are important to him because he comes from a family of immigrants.
“They came here, worked hard, did well and availed themselves of the support systems that were around them,” he said. “They made a better life for themselves, and made this city and state a much better place.”
His father, Paul O’Dwyer, served in the City Council and was the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 1968. His uncle, William O’Dwyer, was New York City’s 100th mayor.
“It’s a passion of mine to understand that immigrants deserve not just to be tolerated, or certainly not discriminated against,” he added, “but we ought to celebrate our immigrant heritage in this town.”
While the general debate about immigration in the country largely focuses on Latin America or Asia, O’Dwyer wants to change that perception to include immigrants from all parts of the world, including Ireland.
Irish immigration to the United States has almost “shut down,” he said, with less than 500 visas issued annually over the last few years.
“We’re losing, in a lot of ways, this interchange between Ireland and the United States that has enriched both countries,” he said. “We need to change that dramatically.’
Many Irish immigrants living in the country are now undocumented, having overstayed their visas. Before the election of Donald Trump, they were mostly able to get by and make a good living.
“Lately though, like every other immigrant group, they’ve been feeling the lash of the Trump administration,” he said.
That’s why the Emerald Isle Immigration Center is so important. Located in the heart of a predominantly immigrant neighborhood, the organization provides citizenship classes, legal counseling and even social work.
O’Dwyer describes the center as a “one-stop shop” for all immigrants.
“Immigrants these days don’t have just one problem,” he said. “If they’re having a problem with their status, they’re also having problems with their jobs. And in many cases, they’re having problems with anxiety.
“We can’t just deal with one facet of their problems, we have to deal with the whole person,” O’Dwyer added. “The community has changed, but the problems haven’t.”
In addition to his advocacy on immigration, O’Dwyer has played an important role pursuing peace and diplomacy for the Irish people. He was a member of the delegation under the Bill Clinton administration that brokered the Good Friday Agreement during the late 1990s in Northern Ireland.
As a liaison between the White House and the Irish-American community, O’Dwyer said his job was to meet with community leaders and assure them that the Clinton administration had their best interest at heart.
It wasn’t easy, considering that the peace accord had facets that were “difficult for this community to deal with.”
“Like all compromises, you have to give up something,” he said. “There’s nothing perfect about it, but the two communities are living peacefully and co-existing.”
O’Dwyer said those trips and meetings were “probably the most exciting part” of his life. Looking back two decades later, he can see the impact of the peace agreement.
“The most tangible result is that every single night, an Irish mother can go to bed knowing that her son is going to come home that night,” he said.
As grand marshal, O’Dwyer has the platform to speak out about issues he cares deeply about. Other than immigration, he has also discussed the impact of Brexit on Irish-British relations.
O’Dwyer recalled that when he traveled to Ireland during the conflict, there was a “big, ugly guardpost” at the border. He remembered being stopped, and a soldier pointing a gun to his head before he even had a chance to explain himself.
After the Good Friday Agreement, those measures were removed. But now that Great Britain is threatening to leave the European Union, O’Dwyer said there’s a chance that border is restored. If there is a Brexit, he said the next step would be for the British to negotiate trade agreements with various countries, including the United States.
“We made it very clear that the full force of Irish America is going to come down on them,” he said. “And there will be no trade agreement with Britain, unless and until, they make sure that border is gone.”
Since he was named grand marshal, O’Dwyer said he’s already attended about 30 St. Patrick’s Day events, including meet-and-greets with various county and Irish organizations throughout the tristate area. He expects to do another 40 events leading up to the parade.
Although he will be marching in the front with elected officials, clergy leaders and other dignitaries, he will have a “Family and Friends” contingent as well. That group includes about 100 family members flying in from Dublin to join the festivities.
The only downside of being grand marshal, O’Dwyer said, is that he won’t get to march with his nine-year-old granddaughter. He’s made it an annual tradition to walk side-by-side with her every year.
“If there’s one person terribly unhappy in this town, it’s her,” he said.
But as the big day approaches, O’Dwyer is excited to represent the Irish-American community at one of the most celebrated events in New York City.
“I’m having the time of my life,” he said.