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Opening the Door to the American Dream, Pierre Georges Bonnefil ’88 Earns France’s Highest Honor

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On May 5, 2015, Pierre Georges Bonnefil ’88 was appointed a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur by the Republic of France. Established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Légion d’Honneur is France’s highest award and one of the most prized distinctions in the world. It recognizes recipients for their extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding service to the country. As directed by the President of the French Republic, Bonnefil was honored for his selfless service to the French immigrant community in New York.

Bonnefil considers himself one of the lucky ones. When political and economic unrest shook their native Haiti in the mid-1960s, his family was able to immigrate to the United States legally. They settled first in Costa Rica and then in the small university town of Ames, Iowa, where his biologist father taught while pursuing a Ph.D. in Ecology.

As Bonnefil remembers it, although his family stood out from the rest, their neighbors in this blue-collar community welcomed them with open arms. “I can trace my love for this country and my faith in the American Dream to those early boyhood years in Iowa,” he says. “They shaped my commitment to helping as many people as possible enjoy the opportunities America offers.”

Bonnefil was also strongly influenced and inspired by his Catholic education. After graduating from college, he volunteered alongside Catholic charities to resettle dispossessed Cuban refugees in St. Louis, Missouri. He then continued his volunteer work as a court interpreter for the United States Immigration and National Service in Puerto Rico. When the refugee camp there closed, he transferred to the INS courts in New York City, where he became the official Creole interpreter and, later, the court clerk.

“I was very enthusiastic about interpreting in the courts,” says Bonnefil. “I literally put my mind, body, and soul into it, jumping around and gesticulating as I went along. I was so dedicated—and so animated—that more than one judge I worked with said I was a natural for the law.” Bonnefil took the encouragement and enrolled in the evening program at St. John’s Law.

“I wanted a place where I could feel at home,” he recalls, “and St. John’s had more of a family feel than any of the other New York schools I visited.”  At St. John’s, he found his professors very approachable and easy to talk to. He also engaged in the life of the school as evening vice president of the Student Bar Association for all four years. With two job offers in hand by graduation, he went to work for the Legacy INS at the Varick Street Detention Center as an Honor’s Program General Attorney.

Bonnefil completed the program and moved on to a successful career in private practice that eventually took him to Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., a top employment law firm. He now is a Member of the Firm in the Immigration Law Group of the Labor and Employment practice. He also serves as vice chair of the firm's Diversity and Professional Development Committee, as chair of the firm's Hispanic Business Group, and as a member of the firm's Technology Team practice group.

Staying true to his roots, throughout his career, Bonnefil has worked pro bono to help struggling immigrants settle in the United States. In addition to sharing his expertise through the media, for the last 15 years, he has volunteered as immigration counsel for the French Consulate General in New York. In that role he helps newly-arrived French citizens and others navigate the often murky waters of U.S. immigration law.

This vital work on behalf of the French immigrant community in New York earned Bonnefil the coveted Légion d’Honneur this year. He also received high honors from France in 2007, when he was awarded the prestigious Ordre national du Mérite for his distinguished achievements. Bonnefil is very proud of both awards, and of the work that stands behind them. “Giving back in this way is very important to me,” Bonnefil shares. “My family’s story is the story of millions and millions of American families. We’re a nation of immigrants. That’s what makes us what we are. And we, as a people, should recognize and celebrate all of the beautiful things that difference and diversity brings to our country.”