Gerard Jean-Juste, 62, Dies; Catholic Priest Devoted Life to Haitian Refugees

Supporters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, embrace the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste in 2004, when the Catholic priest was freed after seven weeks in jail.
Supporters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, embrace the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste in 2004, when the Catholic priest was freed after seven weeks in jail. (By Ariana Cubillos -- Associated Press)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, 62, a Roman Catholic priest who championed the cause of Haitian refugees in South Florida during the 1970s and 1980s and who later was jailed in his native land for his political activism, died May 27 at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital of complications from a respiratory ailment.

At a time when few were paying attention to the thousands of impoverished immigrants who drifted roughly 800 miles to South Florida on rickety boats, Rev. Jean-Juste fought for fair treatment of the overwhelmingly poor black Haitians. Through a dozen class-action lawsuits, three of which went to the Supreme Court, he helped refine the legal parameters for how the U.S. government deals with undocumented immigrants seeking political asylum.

"He was a person who spent his whole life committed to justice for the poor," said Ira Kurzban, an attorney who represented Rev. Jean-Juste's Haitian Refugee Center in those lawsuits. "What he did for Haitians ultimately resulted in benefits for everyone."

The first Haitian ordained as a priest by the Catholic Church in the United States, Rev. Jean-Juste set up the refugee center in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood in the 1970s, and called U.S. policy toward Haitians "our Holocaust." He fought the unprecedented detention of Haitian refugees, who were held without bond behind barbed wire in a former military camp on the edge of the Everglades. He successfully changed federal policy to allow seekers of political asylum to obtain work permits while they awaited hearings on their cases.

One of his greatest victories came in July 1980, when U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King ruled that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had systematically discriminated against Haitian refugees, and ordered new hearings for 5,000 refugees who had been ordered deported.

A supporter of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Rev. Jean-Juste returned to Haiti in the early 1990s, and spoke out on the radio and from the pulpit on political and social issues. After a 2004 coup, the U.S.-backed interim government jailed Rev. Jean-Juste on charges of involvement with a prominent journalist's murder.

International human rights groups protested and after six months, the charges were dropped and Rev. Jean-Juste was released. Supporters said he was imprisoned to keep him from running for president, and he was reportedly pondering a campaign when he died.

Gerard Jean-Juste was born in Cavaillon, Haiti. He studied for the priesthood in a Canadian seminary and returned to Haiti briefly. After he refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the authoritarian Duvalier regime, he fled in 1965 and then graduated from Northeastern University in Boston. He was ordained in 1971 and settled in Miami, a year before the first Haitian "boat people" began to arrive. By 1978, he was the volunteer leader of the Haitian Refugee Center, which provided immigrants with food, shelter and clothing.

Only one percent of the Haitians who sought asylum between 1972 and 1979 won it, the Miami Herald reported, and untold numbers drowned en route to the U.S., sometimes pushed overboard by smugglers. Rev. Jean-Juste angered church officials by conducting funerals for non-Catholics who drowned at sea. It didn't help his career when he called the archbishop a racist; he was denied a parish in South Florida and lost the low-paying job as head of the refugee center.

In 1980, the Mariel boatlift brought more than 12,000 Cuban refugees to Miami. Many were granted asylum, as were Southeast Asians and Central Americans who immigrated after wars in those areas of the world. The Haitians, however, were detained indefinitely at the former military center on Krome Avenue, then deported, because they were considered economic, not political, refugees.

"The United States, one of the greatest governments in the world, is cooperating with one of the most fascist, criminal governments in the third world," Rev. Jean-Juste said in 1981, after President Ronald Reagan ordered the military to intercept and turn around ships carrying illegal immigrants to the U.S.

Survivors include two sisters and two brothers.

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