Less than a mile away from Chicago's Irish American Heritage Center but more than 3,600 miles from Dublin, that ancient and lively city of her birth, Fiona McEntee was saying, "With all the anti-immigration rhetoric that we are hearing I think people are in danger of losing an understanding of the true meaning of the American dream."
Chicago has ever been a nurturing spot for immigrants and dreamers, going back to those sly French explorers and missionaries who came for a quick look-see. Soon after came our first settler, the French-speaking black man from Haiti named Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, who was followed soon enough by human streams of Scandinavians and Dutch, Irish and Poles, Lithuanians, Greeks, Bohemians, Jews, Africans, Mexicans, Asians, and on and on. They came for many reasons, among them political turmoil in their homelands, poverty or persecution. For some it was adventure, but for most it was a leap of hopeful faith.
Few understand the immigrant experience and its current plights and complexities as well as does McEntee, who first came here in 2002, on a one-year exchange program between University College Dublin and DePaul's College of Law. She "fell in love with" Chicago and, after finishing her degree in Dublin, moved here for keeps in 2005. Two years later she earned her law degree at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
She is the founder and principal of the McEntee Law Group, which is resolutely and energetically focused on immigration law. She has won many legal awards and is passionate about her work. Shadowed by the current calls for immigration reform in the U.S., she has been articulately outspoken in campaigning for just change and strenuously fighting for immigrant rights. Her firm has many clients, many of them Irish and many of them artists, such as the Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats.
She also helped her parents, who operate a successful chain of beauty salons and barber shops in Dublin, open a salon here in 2012 called Blowtique.
"I am not really involved in that business, far too busy, but it does allow my parents to come visit more than they might otherwise," she says.
Her office, which she shares with some young lawyers and soon-to-be lawyers, is on the Northwest Side. It is a neat and clean office, colorfully highlighted by the artwork of the eldest of her two children, a six-year-old named Rose, who has a four-year-old brother named Perry.
On the floor of her office are boxes filled with books. "Our American Dream" (Mascot Books) is the title and it was written by McEntee and delightfully illustrated by Srimalie Bassani, who lives in Italy. On one of its 34-some pages is a small drawing by Rose.
The book's other pages contain spreads about Native Americans and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but most focus on people who McEntee has gotten to know personally or professionally, such as a gay couple named Antonio and Bob, an artist from Russia named Yulia, and a soccer-loving little boy from Tanzania named Juma.
Their stories are not long and detailed. They are short and sweet and intended for children.
Here is one, about a teacher: "Our friend Rosita is a passionate teacher / Her dream is big, so she's known as a Dreamer / Came here as a baby, her family works hard / They dream together, and dream of getting green cards."
The book was born when McEntee was asked to read a book to Rose's preschool class.
"I looked for a book that reflected what has been going on with the types of immigration issues I was dealing with and that children might be hearing about in the news," she says. "There are a number of good books about immigrants but usually they are focused on a specific story. I thought there should be a book for kids that concentrated on immigration in positive ways."
Soon she sat down and, over a weekend, wrote her book. That was in February and a journey through Google – "Not good for trying to get medical or legal advice but it helped me navigate the publishing world, about which I knew nothing at all," she says – led her eventually to Virginia-based Mascot Books, which accepted her manuscript and matched her with Bassani.
Copies arrived a couple of weeks ago. Few people have seen the book beyond her officemates and members of her family, some of whom she recently visited on a trip back home to Dublin. She and her children live in East Lakeview neighborhood with husband/father Brian Sajdak, supervisor at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. The couple recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.
"Of course, it's very exciting," she said. "And my family has been so supportive. Rose can recite almost the whole book by heart."
The book will not be available for sale on Amazon.com until after the first of the year. But it will likely make its way onto local bookstores before that and is for sale now at ouramericandreambooks.com, with a portion of the proceeds to be donated to FWD.us, the lobbying group for prison reform and amnesty for undocumented immigrants; the I Stand with Immigrants Initiative and to the American Immigration Council.
With the 2020 presidential campaigns heating up, immigration is an increasingly hot topic in the primary debates. McEntee knows this and she envisions "Our American Dream" as the first of a series. "I realize that each story in the book could be a book of its own," she says. "I believe in the American dream and stories are being told every day about it, as they have been for a long time."
In focusing her book on children, she echoes words written long ago. In 1940, the Chicago Lithuanian newspaper, Jaunimas, editorialized: "When many people speak of new immigrant groups, they refer not only to the foreign born, but to their children. There is probably no group in our population that is making a more distinguished contribution to American life than the sons and daughters of immigrants."