An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Who was Ignatz Mezei and why should you care?


   This man, who seems to have led a life of unrelieved insignificance, must have been astonished to find himself suddenly putting the Government of the United States in such fear that it was afraid to tell him why it was afraid of him.

Shaughnessy v. Mezei, 345 U.S. 206 (1953) (Jackson, J., dissenting)

Many may have read or heard of Hale's Man without a country, but hardly anyone knows about the true story of Ignatz Mezei, who experienced such a lack of citizenship as no one before in U.S. history. Unlike the fictional lieutenant Philip Nolan, Ignatz Mezei led a very unremarkable life until 1948, when he tried to visit his dying mother in Romania.

He arrived in the U.S. in 1923 and lived in Buffalo, NY for most of his life from that time to 1948. He worked as a cabinet maker, and had no problems with the law except for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of receiving stolen property (seven sacks of flour).

He was denied entry into Romania and had to stay in Hungary for 19 months while waiting for a visa to return to the country where he had lived for the preceding 25 years of his life. Upon his return to the U.S. the INS denied him entry on the basis of an emergency proclamation by the President issued during the Second World War. That proclamation stated that an alien could be excluded from the U.S. if his/her entry "would be prejudicial to the interests of the United States."

What we know about Mezei:

  • Member and briefly President of the International Workers Order Hungarian lodge in Buffalo, NY in the 1930s. (a.k.a.: the "Wobblies")
  • Worked as a cabinet maker
  • Lived without citizenship (of any country) from February 9, 1950 to the end of his life.

He found himself caught in an Alice-in-Wonderland legal battle during most of which he had to live in detention on Ellis Island. The legislation that authorized the Presidential proclamation allowed for the evidence against Mezei to remain secret. No other country would accept him once the U.S. refused his entry for reasons of national security. Attempts to deport him failed. The INS even sent him to England and France but each time those countries refused to let him off the ship. Mezei contacted15 other countries which all refused to issue him a visa. Mezei sued for his right to re-enter the United States and that's when he stepped "through the looking glass." After an initial victory and an immigration parole back to Buffalo in December of 1951 the case finally came before the U.S. Supreme Court in March of 1953. But the majority opinion found that Mezei had no standing before the court not only because he was not a U.S. citizen but also because his denial of entry meant that he did not reside in the United States. He returned to an indefinite detention on Ellis Island and entered a legal limbo within which he had no rights whatsoever. The legal fiction that he was not in the United States allowed the Supreme Court's majority to duck the entire question of secret evidence and the deprivation of due process in its decision. (The quote at the top of this page comes from Justice Jackson's minority dissenting opinion in this case).

Public opinion:
By 1951 stories appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times which described Mezei's situation. After the Supreme Court decision public opinion turned markedly hostile towards the Justice Department and in favor of Mezei. An editorial appeared in The New York Times on December 28, 1953 which denounced the Supreme Court's decision in the Mezei case. [*]
Although not legally required--the Attorney General won his case before the Supreme Court--public opinion forced the Justice Department to hold a hearing in February 1954.

The Hearing:
In keeping with the Alice in Wonderland metaphor of this biography, the hearing that took place unfolded as a kind of legal mad tea party. Hardly a heroic figure, Mezei did not make a good showing on the witness stand. He had made numerous contradictory statements, both on the stand and in INS paperwork he had filed over the years (for example, he had listed three different birth places in three different documents). [*] The government turned out two professional witnesses, Manning Johnson and Louis Reed, who accused Mezei of working as an active member of the U.S. Communist party. The fact that Johnson had already admitted to having made false statements under oath in previous cases and received sizable sums in return for his testimony over the years was unknown to Mezei's lawyer. The government also brought up Mezei's membership in the International Workers Order (on the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations, along with the NAACP), as well as his old misdemeanor conviction for receiving stolen property. [**] Given this evidence, the hearing revealed the travesty of the government's claims of national security in its case against Mezei. But in the context of the time, the evidence looked bad for Mezei.

The Conclusion:
Two liars and seven sacks of flour could have kept Mezei incarcerated on Ellis Island for the rest of his life. The Hearing resulted in an exclusion order. But the Board of Special inquiry made an off-the-record recommendation to the Attorney General to grant Mezei an immigration parole. "On August 9, 1954, the day the exclusion decision was affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Attorney General announced that Mezei would be paroled. Ignatz Mezei was never admitted to the United States as a citizen or permanent resident, but he was at least able to return to Buffalo and to avoid life imprisonment on Ellis Island. " [**]

In looking back on the case today the pettiness of powerful public officials comes through with sickening clarity. Once the initial exclusion set events in motion the Attorney General and the INS had to continue their case against a man remarkable only in his total lack of any importance. An attempt to quit at any given stage of the legal battle would have looked like an admission they never had any realistic national security concern in the first place.

To this day later decisions by the Supreme Court failed to repudiate the Mezei decision, clinging to the legal fiction that he was not in the United States and therefore had no right to due process.[***]

Why you should care
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks recent Anti-Terrorism legislation strips aliens of many civil rights. The creation of military tribunals that hear cases in secret and need not make evidence public to protect national security also violates the concept of due process. Many have defended the legislation and other developments as necesary measures in light of the terrorist attacks. Many people assume that these measures will only come into use against terrorists or other clearly dangerous people. But the odd case of Ignatz Mezei proves that small-minded and petty public officials have mis-used unchecked power to ruin the lives of innocent people.

Update: 2004
I write this as news of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal breaks. Many conservatives defend the use of abusive interrogation techniques and speak of the prisoners as very dangerous terrorists. But from the Red Cross Report: "Certain CF [Coalition Forces] military intelligence officers told the ICRC that in their estimate between 70% to 90% of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake." Mezei's case continues to serve as a cautionary tale of abuse of power and the injustices that occur in the absence of due process.

One Last Quote
"Liberty is too highly prized in this country to permit executive officials to imprison and hold heople on the basis of information kept secret from courts." [Justice Black, dissenting, Shaughnessy v. Mezei]


Proclamation No. 2487, 3 C.F.R. 234 (1938-1943), reprinted in 55 Stat. 1647 (1942). (The Presidential order that the INS used to deny Mezei entry upon his return from Europe.)
Act of June 21, 1941, ch. 210, 55 Stat. 252 (1942) (The Act of Congress that authorized the President to make the proclamation listed above).
the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

The words in red above ought to prevent the use of secret evidence since such secrecy violates the concept of "due process."
Manning Johnson and Louis Reed.

These two could be the subject of yet another Intellectual Freedom mini-biography. Former communists who made a good living testifying against others, accusing people and organizations of being communist before Congressional Committees or administrative hearings. Among the accused we find Dr. Ralph Bunche, the U.N. diplomat and winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize and the NAACP to name only two examples. Later in the same year as the Mezei hearing Johnson would face charges of perjury which abruptly stopped his appearances as a government witness. For more see ** below

*  The New York Times ran stories and editorials from 1951-1954. From 1955 on Mezei dissapears from the pages of newspapers and magazines.
"Bad security risk wins aid of court," Dec. 15, 1951 6:8
"Aliens are human, too" Dec. 28, 1953 20:6 (editorial denouncing the Supreme Court Decision): "Alien faces 'exile' on Ellis Island" Feb. 25, 1954 9:6

There is also a letter from Mezei printed in The New York Times:
"Barred alien's case stated" Jan. 1, 1954 22:7

**   You will find the most complete description of the Mezei case, including the Board of Special Inquiry hearing, in the excellent article by Charles D. Weisselberg "The Exclusion and detention of aliens: lessons from the lives of Ellen Knauff and Ignatz Mezei" University of Pennsylvania Law Review April, 1995.
***  Zadvydas v. Davis: the most recent of the cases similar to Mezei's, according to James Tyre, concerned whether an illegal alien who is in the U.S. could be detained indefinitely. The Court said no, in the face of the government's reliance on _Mezei_. It could have rebuked the decision, but instead chose merely to distinguish it on the basis of the legal fiction that Mezei, unlike today's detainees, wasn't actually in the U.S., even though he was.

For more information on the related case law (of primary interest to lawyers, para-legals and those with some legal training) see Wendy R. St. Charles "Recognizing Constitutional Rights Of Excludable Aliens: The Ninth Circuit Goes Out On A Limb To Free The "Flying Dutchman"--Dispensing With A Legal Fiction Creates An Opportunity For Reform" Journal of Transnational Law & Policy Spring, 1995.

The title of the document usually called "the Red Cross Report": Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Protected Persons by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq During Arrest, Internment and Interrogation. February 2004. I have downloaded a copy of the report in .pdf format from the CBS news web site and found the quote above on page 8, paragraph 7.

Many thanks to Steve Benson of the Richardson (Texas) Public Library and Rita Liu for researching and sending me law articles for this biography.

And to James Tyre of Culver City, CA for his legal insights, research for this page and for bringing Mezei to my attention in the first place.

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