strategies for a developing world…

In Memoriam: Ira Gollobin, a Haitian Refugee’s Best Friend Since 1972

Ira Gollobin. I will say it again: IRA GOLLOBIN… I will spell it out for you: I-R-A G-O-L-L-O-B-I-N. Does the name ring a bell? If it does not, it should. And if you are among the people who today seek wisdom and guidance because you are trying to make sense of the world and its complex politics, I would advise acquainting yourself with IRA GOLLOBIN.

clip_image002You will unfortunately not be able to meet him in person. Ira took his last breath the morning of April 4th, 2008 after spending a week in New York’s Saint Vincent’s Hospital. Had he lived to celebrate another birthday on July 18, 2008, he would have turned 97. Could he have lived to see his 97th birthday? Probably, if he had agreed to spend the rest of his life bedridden and being sustained by the artificial means that modern American medicine places at one’s disposal. But as typical of Ira, he thought about it, saw the writing on the wall, abandoned the idea of living a whole century and took the only logical course of action. Ira remained true to his beliefs till the end.

Memorial Service for Ruth and Ira Gollobin

Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 2:00 pm

The New York Society for Ethical Culture
2 West 64th Street, New York, NY 10021

Please RSVP Ira’s daughter, Ruth Gollobin-Basta
home: 516.569.4034 email:

Ira Gollobin leaves us a legacy of principled advocacy, big heart, a strong commitment to the poor and an unshakable belief in the idea that the meek shall inherit the earth. He spent the last 35 years of his life deeply involved with the cause that came to dominate it: Haitian refugees.

A Peoples’ Lawyer

Ira became a lawyer at the age of 21 at the time of the Great Depression, when hundreds of thousands of Americans were out of work, or eking out a living on a meager salary. He could have gone then to work for a corporate law firm, but he chose to stick with the commoners, honing his craft with a solo practitioner who paid him a starting weekly salary of $5. In recognition of Ira’s skills and talents, his employer raised the weekly salary to $7 shortly afterwards.

Ira formally retired at the age of 94. He did not do it because he could no longer handle the client load. He shifted his focus to looking out for his second wife Ruth (his first spouse Esther died of cancer), and in his spare time rethinking the course of history, giving credit to peoples whom Eurocentric interpretations of world development had neglected. Ira planned to correct this oversight and update his book Dialectical Materialism: Its Laws, Categories, and Practice, which was published in 1986 (for a review of the book, please click here).

I glimpsed the outlines of the new book from the many conversations we had over his thoughts on historical movements, politics and philosophy. Writing the last chapter had been interrupted by Ruth’s long hospitalization, and the mourning that followed her death on February 17, 2008. He was looking forward to taking up writing again after the Memorial Service that he had scheduled for Sunday April 6. It was going to be very well attended, he told me at the end of March, with some folks traveling far to attend.

Ira was a pioneer lawyer during his 70+ years of legal practice, unafraid of the obstacles that he faced challenging the conventional wisdom, legal precedents or standard operating procedures. In 1937, with several other lawyers Ira founded the National Lawyers Guild. From 1967 to 1982, Ira was the general counsel of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB), an organization that he started cooperating with when he led the Washington-Heights Inwood Town Meeting from 1936 to 1938. Thanks to Ira, one can research the work of the APCFB at New York University’s Taminent Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. The AFPCB merged in 1982 with the NY Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. The latter in turn merged with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) which, under the leadership of its President Michael Ratner, continues the legacy of breakthrough litigation on behalf of the disenfranchised. Recently, the CCR successfully argued before the Supreme Court of the United States that so-called illegal combatants had a right to habeas corpus, throwing to the wind the Bush Administration’s strategy of sham secret military trials. For more on the landmark victory, please click here.

Taking up the Cause of Haitian Refugees

Ira Gollobin never failed to remind me that he had somehow been tricked into getting involved with the Haitian refugees. Back in 1972, he was counsel to the National Council of Churches. Twenty-three Haitian refugees had sailed the Saint Sauveur, a rickety boat barely fit for river boating, let alone the 700 miles that separated the northern Haitian coast from the sandy beaches of Miami. But there they were: the first black refugees to set foot in the United States and test whether its hard-won new commitments to equality and non-discrimination could be extended to Negroes who were not African-Americans.

Ira recalls being approached by Father Antoine Adrien, head of a group of exiled priests known as the Haitian Fathers who where ministering to Haitians in New York City. According to Ira, Adrien had something up his sleeve, for this was not supposed to turn out to be a lifelong pursuit. Ira immediately seized on the injustice of America’s first black refugees being subjected to detention and discrimination when their claims to political persecution could not have been clearer. Haiti was at the time ruled by Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, a 19-year old President-for-Life whose power derived from his Papa’s ruthless monopoly of government power from 1957 to 1971 and the repressive machinery that he had put in place to suppress all fundamental liberties and plunder the Haitian economy. Most importantly, he quickly realized that decisions on Haitian refugees were given due consideration at the highest levels of the US government as a national security matter, not as an immigration matter. Thus they were not made by low-level government bureaucrats and lawyers. They involved the President, his Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, the Attorney General and other high level officials.

With this understanding, Ira realized that for the Haitians to win their freedom, they needed to be victorious in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. Thus began a strategy that eventually led to the formation of the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NECHR) ten years later in February 1982. Six months after its inception, the founders — Ira among them — decided to shorten the name of the organization to the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR). And in 1995, NCHR became the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. For a more expansive history of the NCHR, please click on this link.

jd_pair Thanks to Ira’s vision and the efforts of the people and organizations that he worked with over the years, tens of thousands of Haitian refugees were spared refoulement to Haiti, became legal permanent residents and eventually gained US citizenship. Tens of thousands of their children are now full-fledged members of American society.

Many of today’s American civil and human rights leaders honed their skills in the 70s and 80s by rubbing elbows with Ira. They include Rick Swartz, President of Strategic Solutions Washington, DC and founder of the National Immigration Forum, Ira Kurzban, past National President and Former General Counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Peter Schey, President and Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Michael Posner, President of Human Rights First, and the late Arthur Helton.

I am extremely thankful that such a giant as Ira Gollobin looked upon me with kindness and shared his great wisdom. He and I became really close about 20 years ago when, together, we took on the task of burying a close friend, Michael S. Hooper, then NCHR’s Executive Director, who died of skin cancer at the age of 41. Ira was all choked up about Mike’s death, but never really wanted anyone to know that. It became evident when he spoke at the service for Mike with a voice that had drowned in many sobs before the event. With Ira’s help, I stepped into Mike’s shoes in 1988. Defying the odds of pulling together the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees after Mike’s death, I took it to higher levels. I couldn’t have done it without his guidance, mentoring and genuine friendship. We did not always agree. I challenged his views as much as he challenged mine. Through it all, mutual respect was the value that we shared. There was no limit to the friendship. Our family spent at least a couple of summers together vacationing at the World Fellowship Center, in New Hampshire.


Ira did not finish the last chapter of the new book that he had been working on. Nature decided otherwise. But perhaps this was his last challenge to us: take the world to a new level so that it can be a better place for all of its children, regardless of creed, color, origins or beliefs… Following in the footsteps of a giant is not going to be easy,  but it’s a journey that is well worth the travel. I invite you to go along.

If you have memories of Ira that you wish to share, please do so by visiting Ira Gollobin Unplugged.

It would really be great to see a room full of former Haitian refugees and supporters of progressive politics, civil and human rights at the memorial service for Ira Gollobin. Won’t you be among them?

Memorial Service for Ruth and Ira Gollobin

Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 2:00 pm

The New York Society for Ethical Culture
2 West 64th Street, New York, NY 10021

Please RSVP Ira’s daughter, Ruth Gollobin-Basta
home: 516.569.4034 email:

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2 Responses

  1. Mr. Gollobin was my Immigration Lawyer.
    He took my case in 2001.
    We had many lively conversations during a few meetings:
    music, history, literature, art, politics, Kiev.
    I saw with my own eyes an Immigration Judge rising from his chair
    when Mr. Gollobin had entered the courtroom…

    I became an American citizen in 2004.
    Thank you, Ira!


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