A Patriot Acts
Craig Trebilcock can’t stomach injustice, whether he finds it in Iraq or here at home
Published in 2005 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 31, 2005
Updated on September 13, 2016
To some people, Craig Trebilcock is the head of the immigration law practice at Barley Snyder in York. To others, he is Lt. Col. Trebilcock, a JAG lawyer in the Army Reserve who has served his country in Germany, Bosnia and, most recently, Iraq. The guy is as patriotic as they come. So is it not ironic that Trebilcock’s most famous legal victory came as a result of arguing against the U.S. government on behalf of Chinese refugees seeking asylum?
“No, I don’t think so,” he reasons. “What motivates me is giving people a voice who might otherwise not have one. They may be people in Bosnia who are being killed because they’re of the wrong ethnicity. They may be people in Iraq who will voice their concerns and their hopes once they get back the rule of law. Or they may be faceless immigrants who became pawns of a misguided government policy.
“In all these instances I see myself on the same side of the fence.”
A Scholar and a Soldier
Growing up in Montague, Mich., a town of 2,500, Trebilcock says he “always had a strong streak of trying to help people who have become disenfranchised.” He took this desire to the University of Michigan Law School, where he spent a lot of time working in the school’s legal aid clinic. There, he cultivated “an appreciation for the fact that great harm can come to individuals if the legal protections of our society are not vigorously defended.”
The seeds of his attraction to the military were also planted early. In his family, there were frequent discussions about his great-uncle Aubrey Trebilcock, an Englishman who was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War I. “Aubrey had been a very popular, successful, intelligent young man with a strong future,” Trebilcock says. “He joined the British army out of a sense of patriotism and out of a sense that it was proper to resist against the aggression of Germany. His self-sacrifice was ingrained in me at an early age.”
He followed in his great-uncle’s footsteps by volunteering in the Army after graduating from law school in 1988. “I had heard that the JAG Corps was a good place to get trial skills,” he says. “Back then my long-range goal was to become an assistant United States attorney, or perhaps to serve in the State Department.”
He spent the next three years honing his litigation skills as a trial defense counsel while stationed in Fulda, in what was then West Germany, 10 kilometers from the East German border. When his active service ended in October 1991, he joined the Reserves and took a job as a personal injury litigator for Stock & Leader in York. And that’s where he stumbled upon the case that would change his life.
Meeting Ping Lin
In June 1993, Stock & Leader was asked to handle a pro bono case on behalf of a Chinese immigrant being held in York County Prison. A ship named Golden Venture had recently ended an 18,000-mile journey by running aground in the dead of night on a sandbar off the coast of Queens, N.Y. After 112 days at sea, cramped in stultifying, squalid quarters, some 300 Chinese, most of them men, none of them with a passport or a visa, jumped into the choppy seas and swam to shore. Some drowned. A few evaded capture. Two hundred eighty-five were handed over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They were not greeted with open arms.
The refugees were detained in prison. One hundred eighteen were sent to York County; others were shipped off to institutions in San Francisco, New Orleans and Winchester, Va. They became pawns in an “Immigration Emergency” declared by the Department of Justice (their ship was the third in two weeks to be picked up in American waters). The Clinton administration ordered them to be deported, calling them “economic migrants.” No doubt some were. But most, as Trebilcock came to learn, had undergone deprivation and hardship to escape the onerous policies of a dictatorial regime.
“It was a fluke how I came to get involved,” Trebilcock recalls. “Our firm had volunteered to do one of the cases. My partner had a sudden conflict so he gave me, an associate, an opportunity to excel.”
To prepare, Trebilcock took a bar association crash course on immigration law. Until then, he knew “absolutely nothing” about the practice area. And he certainly never imagined this would be anything but a brief, uncomplicated assignment. Instead, this “opportunity” would end up taking some 4,000 pro bono hours and become a highly publicized case with national political ramifications.
After Trebilcock met Ping Lin, any skepticism he harbored about his client’s motives vanished. “I had gone to the prison with a bit of a jaded attitude,” he says. “I tried to trip up my client. I cross-examined him. I tried to get him to embellish his story. But his story never changed one iota. It was a horrific tale.”
The story was straight out of Kafka. In China, couples are not supposed to marry before age 25; if they want a child they have to apply for a license from the population control authorities. The license is good for one year.
Through an interpreter, Lin related how the one-child-per couple policy led to forced abortions of those who, like he and his wife, refused to comply. Two days after their second child was born, the “birth control police” came to his house and told him, “We’re aware that you’ve had this unauthorized child. You need to pay a fine and we’re taking your wife for sterilization so you don’t commit this crime again.”
Worried that his wife, still weak from labor, might die during a sterilization operation, Lin, joined by relatives and neighbors, fought with the officials and drove them away. He knew they would be back, so he hid his wife and children with relatives in a village nearby and fled. He worked as an itinerant construction worker. Eventually, with some money he had saved and the financial support of his village, he found his way to the Golden Venture.
The smuggling operation, however, was not the province of altruists. Even though Lin had paid the equivalent of $3,000 to the Chinese Mafia, he would still owe the “snakeheads” (the organized criminals who broker the trips) seven times that amount. He would, in effect, be an indentured servant for years.
“It was a real bad situation,” Trebilcock came to understand, “with brutal people. They may have escaped their government’s coercive family planning, but the men had to work hellacious hours to pay off their debt to the snakeheads. Women were forced into prostitution.”
To win the case, Trebilcock would have to establish that Lin had a “well-founded fear” of persecution. Five weeks later, in a makeshift courtroom at the prison, he presented what he felt was a strong case. The outcome, however, was not what he expected: the judge ruled that the flight from enforced sterilization was not grounds for political asylum.
“I was outraged,” Trebilcock says, not only by the ruling but the attempt of the hastily assembled inter-agency Border Security Working Group in Washington “to ramrod cases through quickly, throwing due process out the window.” (The group’s plan was to get through arraignment, hearing and appeal in 60 days.)
Trebilcock appealed and the case dragged on. After three and a half years, 99 of the defendants, worn down by detention, “cashed in their chips and agreed to return to China,” Trebilcock says. Fifteen others, including Lin, agreed to go to South America rather than risk deportation. Lin spent the following eight years in Caracas after the Vatican pulled some strings on his behalf with the Venezuelan government. While there he spent a couple of years as a mid-level manager in a sandal factory before opening his own convenience store.
Meanwhile, Trebilcock, realizing that “the law was stacked against us, that it was more of a political than a legal case,” began fighting the case in the media and in the corridors of Congress. He gave a number of interviews, including one to Tom Brokaw of NBC News. “We lobbied the administration and the administration started to become embarrassed. It announced the release of the remaining prisoners in February 1997.” Some were even granted asylum.
Lin arrived back in the United States in September 2004 with an employment visa and is now a legal immigrant. He again runs his own convenience store, “Ly’s Trade,” which is just a block from Trebilcock’s office. His wife and children are with him. His daughter is a distinguished student in the best school in York County. His son made the honor roll. They are thriving.
While gratified, Trebilcock jokes that he is “a poor immigrant lawyer.” It took “many years of poking the Department of Justice with a sharp stick” before he achieved success for his client.
Lieutenant Colonel Trebilcock
Around the time he was winding down his work poking the government, he was called upon once again to represent it: This time as a soldier in Iraq.
Assigned to the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade and attached to the Marines, Trebilcock was “the guy who coordinated the rebuilding of the court system in southern Iraq.” He also ran convoys, planned security, called in medevacs — hardly the traditional bailiwick of a JAG lawyer. Nor did he find it a particularly uplifting experience.
“There was complete anarchy. We had to try to get the police back to policing and the looters into jail. Our communications capabilities were abysmal,” Trebilcock says. “This hampered our reconstruction efforts. Our chain of command was bureaucratic and restricted the coordination necessary to succeed in our mission. No one would talk to each other — DOD, the State Department, DOJ. There were little fiefdoms. And because those in charge of these fiefdoms couldn’t agree, very little of the reconstruction aid money trickled down to the street.
“We promised the people there so much,” Trebilcock says. “We accomplished squat.”
After a year in Iraq, he returned in March 2004 to his wife and two teenage boys and to Barley Snyder (which he joined in 1997 after a one-year stint in Bosnia). His immigration practice is busier than ever. The Chinese refugee case, he says, “came at a fortuitous time.” He adds, “Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a wave of immigration that is larger than during the first two decades of the 20th century. Thirteen percent of the population of our nation are foreign-born, the highest percentage in 100 years. Central Pennsylvania is a much different place than it was 12 to 15 years ago. It has become more of a melting pot. Immigrants are establishing themselves in more rural areas.”
And Trebilcock will be there to make sure that they, like Ping Lin, get a fair shot at reaching their American dream. It’s been his golden venture.