‘He dedicated his life to the voiceless.’ Jean-Robert Lafortune, Miami Haitian leader, dies

In this Jan. 1, 2005 photo, Jean-Robert Lafortune talks about the group’s plans for the renovation of Haitian Freedom Garden (Place Kamoken in Creole) at the southwest corner of Miami Avenue and Northwest 62nd Street. (MARIANNE ARMSHAW/For The Herald)
In this Jan. 1, 2005 photo, Jean-Robert Lafortune talks about the group’s plans for the renovation of Haitian Freedom Garden (Place Kamoken in Creole) at the southwest corner of Miami Avenue and Northwest 62nd Street. (MARIANNE ARMSHAW/For The Herald)

Prominent human rights activist and Haitian community leader Jean-Robert Lafortune died earlier this month after enduring a long chronic illness. He was 63-years-old.

Lafortune, who was locally and nationally recognized for his role in seeking relief for Haitian immigrants throughout the U.S. and abroad, died Oct. 15, according to an obituary circulated by his relatives and colleagues.

He spent the bulk of his professional years working as a community organizer for the Miami-Dade County government. He worked as director of Citizen Participation at the county’s Community Action Agency and formerly chaired the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition nonprofit.

Born in April 24, 1956, in Port-au-Prince, he was forced to flee to Costa Rica during the totalitarian regime of François Duvalier in the late 1970s. He lived as a political asylee for a year and made it to the U.S. in 1980. He earned an Associates Degree from Miami Dade Community College, before pursuing graduate studies in administration and international education.

Most notably, he led the effort in U.S. Congress to pass the Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act (HRIFA) in 1998, which granted permanent residency status to about 50,000 Haitians living in the U.S.

“He dedicated his life to the voiceless so that they could also have a seat at the table. Job well done, daddy! We are so proud of you and love you endlessly,” said his daughter Nadine Lafortune in a statement.

Lafortune worked to spread awareness among Haitian residents in South Florida to be counted in the 2000 Census, often collaborated with immigrant advocacy groups, and was deeply involved in finding solutions to affordable housing issues.

“Jean-Robert, most of the time, once he found out that something was going on in the Haitian community, he would call other Haitian organizations, to assist people ... and let them know what’s going on,” said Yvans Morisseau, community advocacy liaison for the Miami-Dade County Office of Community Advocacy.

“He was a bridge-builder,” Morisseau said. “He brought the community together.”

Morisseau, who knew Lafortune since the late 1980s, said his also longtime colleague’s work with Haitian refugees was not limited to South Florida and the U.S. He advocated for the implementation of Temporary Protected Status for Haitians and sought support from the Haitian government, Morisseau said. He made several visits to Haitian immigrants at detention centers in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic.

In 2008, after a deadly collapse at a Haitian school killed 98 children and injured 150 more, Lafortune helped raise funds to send a team of psychologists and social workers to assist the families in need.

Lafortune was a well-known and go-to figure in the Haitian community, often seen side-by-side with local community leader Marleine Bastien. His voice was always smooth and calm, his emails precise and succinct when addressing the challenges facing Haitian refugees and the community at large.

“He was the smart interlocutor who talked to Democrats, Republicans or independents,” said Dr. Yves Renaud, a friend and fellow board member of the Haitian Broadcasting Corporation. “He was polite, respectful and honest. He would never scream or yell at someone; he was not someone who pointed fingers, just about facts and solutions.

“Even when he disagrees with you he kept cool and calm, responsible and respectful,” he added. “He was the Elijah Cummings in the Haitian community ; without him, I doubt 50,000 Haitians would have obtained amnesty.”

Lafortune’s family and friends gathered for a Celebration of Life on Friday and led funeral services at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church on Saturday. He is survived by relatives including two daughters and two grandchildren.

Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, said in a statement “Lafortune was a quiet, yet a very powerful advocate for immigrants’ rights.

“He was a consensus builder, a trailblazer, an iconic personality who always tried to reach out to our better angels, and he’s definitely made an impact,” she added. “The world has lost a staunch advocate, a champion for human rights.”

Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

Bianca Padró Ocasio is a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald. She has been a Florida journalist for several years, covering everything from crime and courts to hurricanes and politics. Her bilingual work telling the stories of the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida has been previously recognized by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida Sunshine State Awards.