Chevalier, French Légion d’Honneur

Member of the Firm Pierre Georges Bonnefil has been appointed a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur by the Republic of France. 

Established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Légion d’Honneur has been France’s highest award and one of the most coveted distinctions in the world. The designation was presented to Mr. Bonnefil by French Consul General Bertrand Lortholary at an official ceremony at the French Consulate in New York City on May 5, 2015. In 2007, Mr. Bonnefil also received the Ordre national du Mérite.

See Mssr. Lortholary's remarks, below, and  read the firm's announcement here.

Proposition de discours

Remise des insignes de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur à M. Pierre Georges Bonnefil par le Consul Général de France à New York

Dear Pierre Georges Bonnefil,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear friends.

It is my great pleasure and privilege to welcome you all to the Consulate General of France, as we are gathered here this evening to honor an eminent member of the Franco-American community in New York, Mr. Pierre George Bonnefil.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to Pierre’s family and friends who have joined us here tonight to express their support and admiration, with a special word for your wife, Marissa, who has always been by your side.

Chers amis, the Legion of Honor that I will bestow upon Pierre in a few minutes was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France, based on a personal decision by the President of the French Republic. It is France’s highest honor and one of the most coveted in the world. And the President of France has decided to name you, Pierre, to the rank of Chevalier, illustrating France’s deep gratitude for your personal commitment to the French community in New York, and more generally the outstanding, selfless work you have accomplished for newly-arrived immigrants throughout your career.

Dear Pierre, before presenting you with the insignia, as tradition goes, I would like to take a moment to retrace your rather unique story, which will be proof in itself that the Legion of Honor was definitely owed to you.

You were born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the late 1950's, the same year François Duvalier became President of the country. Your father was an accomplished agronomist, your mother an assistant nurse, and in 1964 they decided to emigrate to the United States, with you and your three older sisters, fleeing economic and political hardship.

You first stopped in Costa Rica, where your father worked for the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Science. And you attended the United Nations school, which was taught in both Spanish and English, and as a result spoke four languages fluently by the age of 7, which served you rather well for the rest of your career.

You then moved to a small university town in Iowa, where your father continued to teach and pursue his Ph.D. in Ecology. It didn’t take long for your neighbors to welcome you with open arms, and these years in Iowa were probably the origin of your love for America, and desire to help as many people as possible enjoy the opportunities this country gave you.

After another four years, you moved to Puerto Rico, where your father continued to teach, at the Inter-American University. During that time, the Yale Peabody Museum selected him to have a species of frogs indigenous to Haiti named after him, crowning – even though, as a modest man, he wouldn’t acknowledge this – a lifetime of dedication to science and ecology. It is obvious that your father’s hard work and accomplishments had a deep influence on you, and another life-changing influence was the Jesuit school you attended in Puerto Rico, which, you say, directly informed your subsequent approach to life and personal choices.

Indeed, after graduating from high school, you embarked on your own to Connecticut, to attend Fairfield University, a famous Jesuit institution, which only strengthened your commitment to this doctrine of life and your dedication to others. As a result, instead of just thinking of starting your own career as most graduates do, you decided that you wanted to give back, and joined a volunteer program, working for one year alongside catholic charities to resettle Cuban refugees in St. Louis, Missouri.

Having yourself emigrated from a struggling Caribbean island, it only made sense that you should want to help dispossessed immigrants, but for most people the experience would have stopped there. Instead, you decided to volunteer again as a court interpreter for the United States Immigration National Service or INS, at the Fort Allen Refugee camp in Puerto Rico - where your decision to help people in need had originated. There, you were faced with even more daunting challenges, confronted with the refugees’ misery and despair, and you shared with us a painful anecdote, of the day you discovered the body of one of the refugees who had taken his own life. This act of desperation led to the closing of the camp, and you were subsequently transferred to the INS courts in New York, where you became the official Creole court interpreter for the U.S., and later served as a court clerk.

This experience allowed you to become more familiar with the immigration judicial process, and, encouraged by some of the judges you worked for, you decided to go to Law School. After graduating from St. John’s University, you were directly hired by the INS as part of a prestigious Justice Department program which distinguishes the most promising attorneys. Upon completion of this program, you went into private practice, and in 2006 you were hired by Epstein, Becker and Green, where you practice today as a Member of the Firm, advising immigrants and defending them in court, still striving to make the American dream available to all.

Indeed, your entire career has been characterized by this unwavering desire to reach out to as many people as possible, rather than limiting yourself to your own clients and professional circle. During your early years as a lawyer, you were a frequent guest on a Haitian TV talk show and often appeared on Spanish TV, providing immigration advice to the communities that needed it most, before becoming a panelist on the highly popular Montel Williams Show. Aside from using the media to the benefit of struggling minorities, you have continuously been giving back to the Haitian community through various associations that help immigrants settle and find work in the New York area. This is something you didn’t mention when we asked you for more information to prepare tonight’s ceremony, as you are, like your father I guess, a discreet and modest man, but it is quite obvious that your dedication to others and boundless generosity has never stopped and will keep flourishing for as long as you live.

We, at the Consulate, are particularly grateful for your work, as for fifteen years now, you have been helping, on a strictly volunteer basis, newly-arrived French citizens navigate the sometimes choppy waters of U.S. immigration law and get invaluable information and support in what can be challenging times. Everyone here knows what a generous, giving and altogether extraordinary person you are, and what an invaluable addition you have been to our team. When I mentioned that you were being considered for the Legion of Honor, the answer I got from all of my colleagues was “Oh, for him that will be easy,” as if it were only natural that you should receive this honor – and it is.

It is therefore my great pleasure to award you today, on behalf of the President of the French Republic, the distinction of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

Pierre George Bonnefil, au nom du Président de la République, nous vous faisons Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur.

French Consul General Bertrand Lortholary