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Bar News - May 20, 2015

Manchester Attorney Helps Blind ‘Barefoot Lawyer’ Secure Visa


Guangcheng Chen and George Bruno pose for a photo during a strategy meeting while Bruno was working to secure permanent US residency for Chen.
It took about six months and hundreds of pro bono hours, but Manchester immigration attorney George Bruno was able to secure permanent US residency for blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who made world headlines in 2012 after a daring and dangerous 300-mile journey from his rural home to the US Embassy in Beijing.

With early assistance from Bancroft PLLC in Washington, DC, Bruno navigated a long and often frustrating process to obtain a special visa for Chen and his family that facilitates frequent travel between the United States and China, where Chen’s nephew and others have been jailed by the Communist Party for helping Chen flee.

In response to his fight against human rights violations in China, most notably related to the country’s one-child policy, Chen was imprisoned and illegally placed on house arrest for several years by the Communist Party. When he escaped and eventually made it to Beijing, having suffered a broken foot along the way, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally negotiated Chen’s departure to the United States.

“I’m extremely grateful for some individuals, especially Mrs. Clinton,” Chen said through a translator during a recent telephone interview with Bar News. “In general, I would say the American government did a lot, but whether or not they did as much as they could, that’s another question.”

Chen details his struggles and the negotiations that eventually resulted in his departure from China in his new memoir. But even after he was able to safely leave China, he and his family still had to contend with US government bureaucracy. Despite the fact that Chen’s was a high-profile case, Bruno says, the long process of securing Chen’s visa was further complicated by the seemingly disjointed American immigration system.

“With the national debate going on, it seems so often focused on illegal undocumented persons living in the US, but the forgotten part of the whole debate is how we treat people who are trying to navigate the system legally, and so often they are mistreated,” says Bruno, the former US ambassador to Belize. “The system is not very people-friendly.”

Chen’s case was referred to Bruno through the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice in Bow, NH. Named for the late Congressman Tom Lantos, father of Katrina Swett, the Lantos Foundation awarded Chen – China’s most famous “barefoot lawyer” – its 2012 Human Rights Prize. The foundation then provided further assistance when Chen and his family arrived in the United States that year.

‘The Barefoot Lawyer’

The term “barefoot lawyer” refers to self-taught legal activists in China who learn enough about the law to file civil actions and educate others about their rights. The phrase doubles as the title of Chen’s new book, a memoir that traces his courageous efforts to combat Communist Party policies, and his immigration to the United States.

Completely blind since childhood, Chen faced more obstacles than most when trying to learn about the laws that govern communist China. He had the added challenge of trying to read about those laws, many of which are deliberately censored, in Braille.

“There is really no information in Braille except for the disabilities laws,” Chen explains. “I got a lot of information from listening to legal hotline shows on the radio.”

It was in the 1990s that Chen’s interest in the law as a way to fight for human rights was first sparked. During a trip to Beijing, he was charged for a subway ticket, even though Chinese law allows the blind to ride for free. He brought complaints all the way to the central authorities, with no relief. “At that point, I realized that maybe the law was the best way to resolve issues,” he recalls.

Chen sued the Beijing Metro Corporation in a successful lawsuit that continues today to benefit disabled people throughout China. He later moved to address environmental pollution in rural areas and is perhaps most widely known for shedding light on abuses of China’s one-child policy.

Instituted in 1978, the policy restricts couples from having more than one child and was designed to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems believed to be the result of China’s large and fast-growing population.

In 2005, Chen began to investigate allegations of violent, forced abortions and sterilization of women in the Linyi region of China. He found that coercive practices remained widespread, and he documented numerous cases of abuse, including more than 130,000 forced abortions or sterilizations in Linyi alone in 2005. As a result and at great personal risk, he filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Linyi on behalf of women who had been subject to forced abortion and sterilization. This was the first class action lawsuit to challenge local abuses of China’s one-child policy. Although the courts never heard the case, Chen’s groundbreaking maneuver drew international attention.

In August 2005, following the lawsuit, local authorities placed Chen under house arrest for 10 months before formally charging and arresting him. He was denied counsel, quickly convicted on trumped up charges and sentenced to serve more than four years in jail. After serving his sentence, he was again placed under illegal home confinement.

Nearly two years later, in May 2012, Chen slipped out of his home in a daring night escape that involved scaling walls, traversing fields, crossing a river, and traveling 300 miles to the US Embassy in Beijing.

What kept him going throughout his ordeal, he says, were his beliefs that good triumphs over evil and that, by using the law and the justice system, he could draw attention to what was happening and help bring about change. “It was important that I not give in and not capitulate to the authorities,” he says. “In my view, if you bow your head, then in a minute, you’ll be on your knees, so I felt it was necessary to maintain my position in the face of the Communist authorities.”

Chen believes that resistance to repression is necessary, even when the stakes don’t seem high. When people ignore small transgressions by government authorities, even when they don’t involve a lot of money, it “creates a situation where those types of injustices are accepted,” he says. “I would encourage my friends in the legal field to take on cases pro bono if it seems like it’s financially a very small case, but the social rewards might be great.”

For Bruno, taking Chen’s case became a way to not only help an important figure working for human rights, but also to raise awareness about the unnecessary complexity and inefficiency of the US immigration system.

“They were not only mistreated by the Chinese government, but had to fight the US government bureaucracy as well,” says Bruno of his client. “Still, we all got through it and it ended well. It was an honor to represent this courageous family.”

Chen says he’s grateful to Bruno for the help he provided: “He did really important work and worked really hard to resolve the issues.”

Chen, his wife, and their two children now live in a suburb of Washington, DC. Chen teaches at a local university. His book, The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, was released March 10.

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