Detained, Without Details
In the second year of his confinement, Ignatz Mezei typed a short letter to a federal judge in New York.
“Let me go free,” he wrote. “I did not kill anybody, I did not steal anybody, I did not make any crime.”
Indeed, Mezei was not even accused of a crime. It was 1951, and the longtime U.S. resident was being held without charge in an Ellis Island prison because he was suspected of being a communist sympathizer.
It is a case that reverberates today as the legal fallout from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, makes its way through the courts. Among the links across half a century: William H. Rehnquist, then a young law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court and now its 79-year-old chief justice.
The Mezei case is being cited by both sides as Rehnquist’s high court prepares to decide, as soon as Monday, whether to take up the cases of two groups of detainees at the special prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Like Mezei, they are non-U.S. citizens who are being held indefinitely, without charge, at water’s edge. They, too, are seeking the right to confront their accusers in U.S. courts.
Mezei, a cabinetmaker who lived in Buffalo for many years, had attempted to return to the United States in February 1950 after a lengthy visit to Eastern Europe. Immigration officials, saying he had associated with communists in Buffalo, denied him reentry.
Two lower-level federal courts ordered him released; the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said his incarceration came “dangerously close to imprisonment for mere beliefs or propaganda.” Both courts expressed frustration that the government refused to say specifically why it was holding him or to file charges so that he could defend himself.
But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision at the height of the Red scare of that time, ruled against Mezei. Among the memos filed in the case was one by Rehnquist, a clerk for Justice Robert Jackson.
“When it comes to this guy, I have trouble crying,” Rehnquist wrote. “He lived in this country 25 years and never bothered to become a citizen.” Rehnquist called it an “act of grace” for the government to let him “temporarily decamp on Ellis Island.”
Mezei would “decamp” in the jail there for nearly four years, literally a man without a country.
The tiny isle in New York Harbor was then a clearinghouse for immigrants. It was only occasionally used as a detention facility for those with medical problems or security concerns that could not be immediately cleared up.
For Mezei, it became home until the Eisenhower administration quietly released him in 1954 as the government was closing down Ellis Island.
Freed at age 57, Mezei returned to Buffalo. He would live with his wife and four stepchildren in Derby, N.Y., until her death in 1969. He sold their home and returned to Hungary, where he is said to have died, largely forgotten, in the 1970s.
Supreme Court opinions in the Mezei case are being cited in the Guantanamo Bay cases.
The government cites the court’s ruling that the immigration facility on Ellis Island was not part of the United States for purposes of conferring legal rights. It makes a similar argument about the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
One of the two petitions filed on behalf of some detainees at Guantanamo quotes from the Supreme Court dissent in the Mezei case, written by Justice Jackson.
As Jackson’s clerk, Rehnquist researched the law and sometimes recommended how to rule in cases. But the justice, as he often did, sharply disagreed with his unabashedly conservative clerk in the Mezei case.
Jackson was especially troubled that the government “was afraid to tell him why it was afraid of him.” Jackson also worried that future immigrants would be jeopardized by the denial of due process.
“It is inconceivable to me that this measure of simple justice and fair dealing would menace the security of this country,” Jackson said. “No one can make me believe that we are that far gone.”
The story of Ignatz Mezei (pronounced Meh-Zay) was pieced together from statements he gave to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; letters he wrote to court, to his lawyers and to the press; other court documents; a handful of newspaper clippings; and the fading recollections of family members who scarcely knew him.
Neither a stepdaughter in Buffalo nor a nephew in Miami could remember much about Mezei. They recall a lonely man who wandered away when family pictures were taken. Seldom would he talk about his years in detention, except to say on occasion, “It is like going to death.... You don’t do nothing on Ellis Island. You go crazy.”
He had brown hair, brown eyes, thick dark eyebrows and a wisp of a moustache. He looked rather rakish in his black cap and drab suit, riding the ferry back to Ellis Island after a court hearing in 1953.
Mezei was born ... who knows where?
He said his parents told him he came into this world in May 1897 aboard a steamer in the Strait of Gibraltar. He said he was baptized in Romania, raised there and in Hungary, and took up arms for Hungary in World War I. That gave him his first taste of a prison cell: He was taken captive on the Italian front and held for two years.
Peace came, but Europe remained in turmoil. Mezei became a seaman and learned ship carpentry. Two days before Christmas 1923, aboard the Belgian ship the Merci as it glided into New York Harbor, he jumped overboard. Coming up wet without a visa or much else, he swam to Pier 14 and climbed ashore.
“I figured: What should I do?” he recalled in an INS hearing decades later. “Go back to suffer more or stay in the United States? I heard that the United States is very good for everybody. So I stayed over here.”
For 25 years, America was his home. He roamed Manhattan for a year, finding work as a cabinetmaker. He drifted to Chicago, and in 1929 settled in Buffalo.
There he took a room in a boardinghouse run by Julia Horvath. A native Hungarian, she was twice widowed and raising four children. He paid her $10 a month and later more, he said, because “they was very poor. She had no husband.”
Slowly he built his carpentry business. He drove a Dodge truck. In World War II he served as a local air warden, he said. He sold war bonds. Three times he donated blood. He built battery boxes for the Coast Guard.
He also learned that his father had been shot to death by the Nazis, and later that his mother was ill in Romania. He told friends and customers that he had to go back to see her.
Mezei arrived in Hungary with a small suitcase with one change of clothes, plus “a little power saw” in case he should find work. But he could not obtain travel papers for Romania. For two years he traveled the European capitals, he said, hoping to get into Romania.
Belatedly, word reached him that his mother had died. Meanwhile, he was reunited with his Buffalo landlady, Horvath, who was in Hungary visiting relatives. They married in Budapest and returned to New York in February 1950.
But they had returned home to a changed America, a suspicious America. It was not illegal to be a member of the Communist Party, but at the height of the Cold War, many in Washington were intent on ferreting out anyone -- especially noncitizens -- suspected of communist leanings.
Horvath, a naturalized U.S. citizen, went on to Buffalo. But Mezei was ordered held for his alleged affiliation with the Workers Party in Buffalo. U.S. officials said they suspected he had gone to Europe for party training.
Immigration officials also brought up a 1935 guilty plea for possessing a $2 bag of stolen flour, for which Mezei had been fined $10. There was evidence that he ran a whiskey still in his home during Prohibition. They suggested he married Horvath only to ease back into this country.
Soon after he was detained, William Fliegelman, an INS examiner, asked him why he had left the United States.
“I never see my mother for so long, and I never saw my family for so long. They live in old country, and I never see them for so long and I was homesick,” he said.
Were you ever a member of a Communist organization?
Mezei said he briefly ran a carpentry union in Buffalo, and that sometimes they met at Hamilton Hall. He said he remembered seeing Workers Party organizers there, and that sometimes he let them speak to his union members.
Why? Fliegelman asked.
“When the people who is on the meeting vote for it I can do nothing,” he said. “I cannot tell them they don’t belong here. They must want them to speak over there. That is the liberty, they call it.”
Not because you are a sympathizer of the Communist Party?
“That is right. On that question I am as white as the wall.”
But the INS would later find several witnesses who would state that Mezei was a communist agitator. Louis Reed, an American Communist leader, told the INS that he had helped recruit “Comrade Mezei” into the Workers Party of America.
“He was a promising, upcoming young fellow with no attachments,” Reed said.
Reed and others recalled that Mezei hung around the second floor of Buffalo’s Hamilton Hall, the meeting place for local Communists. And that he passed out literature and sold subscriptions to the party newspaper.
Margaret Witkowski, the sole survivor of Mezei’s four stepchildren, remembered in a recent interview in Buffalo how he put them to work for the cause.
“He’d have fliers to hand out to everybody on election day,” she said. “I guess you could vote Communist back then.”
Mezei vehemently denied any Communist affiliation. Testifying through an interpreter at an INS hearing, he said he never glorified Russia or praised Josef Stalin.
“Have you ever stated to anyone that it’s only under a Communist government that a worker gets what he’s entitled to?” he was asked.
“Really,” Mezei responded, “that is an untruth. It is not true.”
When it was suggested his behavior was seditious, Mezei lashed out from the witness stand. “I was not!” he said. “Prove it!”
Others said they never heard leftist talk from Mezei, and that he was more likely to be shooting pool at Hamilton Hall than inciting insurrection.
Reed, the Communist leader, said that Mezei was not much of a party member. He said Mezei turned out to be lazy.
“In his Communist activities,” Reed told the INS, “why, the way I would characterize him is as being unreliable.”
Although he couldn’t reenter the United States, Mezei could go somewhere else. But where?
He thought his birth in British waters off Gibraltar might help make him a British subject, and he convinced U.S. authorities to take him there. But as his boat entered the port at Plymouth, England, the British government said no. They did not want someone the United States deemed a threat.
Twice he was taken to France, and each time the French denied him entry.
He was returned to the prison at Ellis Island, where he fired off letters to a dozen countries in Latin America. All said no. How could they accept him, not knowing why he was so dangerous?
Mezei didn’t have citizenship anywhere. The State Department told the Hungarians that he was their problem, but Hungary refused to take him. He said he didn’t ask to return to Eastern Europe because he feared the Communist Party there would view him as a U.S. spy.
In November 1951, U.S. District Judge Irving R. Kaufman in New York rejected the government’s position that Mezei did not have the right to due process because he was on Ellis Island and not on the U.S. mainland.
Kaufman ordered Mezei released immediately, unless the government could convince him that Mezei was indeed a danger. When federal officials refused to cooperate, he ridiculed the suggestion that “releasing this alien from detention will bring a flood of enemy agents, spies, saboteurs, madmen, homicidal maniacs and lepers down upon us.”
The government appealed and lost again, this time before the 2nd Circuit. The government appealed higher and Mezei was briefly paroled to Buffalo.
In the Supreme Court building in Washington, working in a first-floor cubicle, one of the first to study the case was Rehnquist, then 28 and just out of Stanford Law School.
In his memo, Rehnquist embraced an earlier dissent by Judge Learned Hand of the 2nd Circuit. Hand had maintained that Mezei could not “force us to admit him” into this country and that “he must find an asylum elsewhere; or, like the Flying Dutchman, forever sail the seas.”
Rehnquist said Congress already had provided that noncitizens like Mezei were “excludible without hearing” and that “if Congress plainly said that all aliens with green hair shall be excluded, I know of nothing in the Constitution which would prevent them.”
Then he wrote, “This alien is detained on Ellis Island by the government simply because he is unable to go to any other country. He is perfectly free to get on the first outbound boat that comes along.”
The Supreme Court narrowly reversed the lower court ruling, holding that the attorney general could indeed exclude someone without a hearing if the disclosure of confidential information would be “prejudicial to the public interest.”
And the high court determined that “harborage at Ellis Island is not an entry into the United States.”
In the current cases, the government is equating Ellis Island then with Guantanamo Bay now, arguing that it can hold the Guantanamo Bay detainees without charges or trial because Cuba is not part of U.S. soil. Though the prison is on a U.S. naval base there, Washington maintains that it merely leases the property from the Cuban government.
But the detainees argue otherwise. They note that courts-martial have been held on Guantanamo Bay for Navy personnel and say it is simply unfair, as in Mezei’s case, to confine people indefinitely without a right to due process in the courts.
The petitions are on behalf of 12 Kuwaiti men who claim they were doing charity work in the Afghanistan region when they were captured during the war there, and a second group of two British and two Australian prisoners who also say they were not enemy combatants but had gone to the area for personal reasons when they were seized.
Mezei, free while the government appealed, was returned to Ellis Island in April 1953 after the high court’s decision. Guards at the prison were glad to have him back. They paid him 10 cents an hour for doing odd jobs. Guards thought him “a nice man,” and the pool table needed mending and couches in the recreation room were in disrepair.
The following year, as the government prepared to shut down Ellis Island, the Eisenhower administration quietly released Mezei, “pending further consideration of his case.”
There was no explanation, and Mezei did not wait to hear one. He cashed out his meager prison savings and purchased a train ticket to Buffalo. Three months later, the Ellis Island facility was closed for good.
After the death of his wife, he returned to the old country and lived alone outside the capital city of Budapest until he died in the 1970s. His nephew, John Mezey of Miami, has gone there to visit but could not find the grave.