This week's "found poem" is another one crafted from a legal case.
The case is a really interesting situation that happened during the second "red scare" in the U.S., in the 1950s. Mezei, a Romanian/Hungarian man had lived here in the US legally for 25 years, as a permanent resident (i.e., he had what everybody calls a "green card," though it is not green now). He left the US to try to visit his dying mother in Romania but was denied entry and then had trouble getting permission to leave Hungary. He finally got permission to leave Hungary, and was granted a visa at the American consulate for entry to the U.S.
But when he actually arrived at Ellis Island, the U.S. government denied him entry, as a threat to national security. The government refused to disclose why it thought Mezei was a threat. Unfortunately, no other country in the world was willing to take Mezei in, especially now that the U.S. deemed him a threat but refused to say why.
Mezei sued, demanding a chance to hear the evidence against him and respond, to try to prove it was safe to let him go back to his home in New York. He argued that keeping him on Ellis Island was depriving him of his liberty without "due process of law," in violation of the constitution.
As you'll see in the poem, Mezei lost the case. The court's opinion has a single chilling line that has always stood out to me, from the first time I read it: "Whatever the procedure authorized by Congress is, it is due process as far as an alien denied entry is concerned."
That line cannot actually mean what it says, can it? Could Congress say, for instance, that all aliens denied entry are to be dumped in the ocean? Or that their applications should be decided by pulling tickets from a hat?
So anyway. Without further ado, the poem about Mr. Mezei and why, the Supreme Court decided, he could be kept on Ellis Island. Once again, I have stuck as closely as possible to the actual words of the opinion, only changing things where it was necessary because of some portion I'd deleted.
A Man Seeking An Abiding Place*
Though there is a certain vagueness about his history, Mezei
seemingly was born in Gibraltar of Hungarian or Rumanian parents
and lived in the United States from 1923 to 1948.
In May of that year he sailed for Europe,
to visit his dying mother in Rumania.
Denied entry there, he remained in Hungary for some 19 months,
because he had difficulty getting permission to exit.
Finally, armed with an immigration visa
issued by the American Consul in Budapest,
he proceeded to France and then by boat to New York.
Upon arrival on February 9, 1950, he was
temporarily excluded from the United States
and was received at Ellis Island.
After reviewing the evidence, the Attorney General,
ordered the temporary exclusion to be made permanent,
without a hearing,
based upon "information of a confidential nature,
the disclosure of which would be prejudicial to the public interest."
Thus far all attempts to effect Mezei's departure
from Ellis Island to another country have failed.
France and Great Britain refused him permission to land.
The State Department has unsuccessfully negotiated
with Hungary for his re-admission.
Mezei himself applied for entry
to about a dozen Latin-American countries
but all turned him down.
In short, respondent sat on Ellis Island
because this country shut him out
and others were unwilling to take him in.
Opinion of the majority of the Supreme Court:
Courts have long recognized the power to expel or exclude aliens
as a fundamental sovereign power exercised by
the Government's political departments
largely immune from judicial control.
In the exercise of these powers, the Attorney General,
may shut out aliens whose entry would be prejudicial
to the interests of the United States.
And may do so without a hearing,
when the exclusion is based on confidential information
the disclosure of which may be prejudicial to the public interest.
It is true that aliens who already have passed through our gates
may be expelled only after proceedings
conforming to traditional standards of fairness
encompassed in due process of law.
But an alien on the threshold of initial entry
stands on a different footing:
the procedure authorized by Congress is,
it is due process
as far as an alien denied entry is concerned.
The opinion of the minority of the court, in dissent:
Fortunately it still is startling, in this country,
to find a person held indefinitely in executive custody
without accusation of crime or judicial trial.
In the view of the law, it can be said that this case
Is that of an alien who asks admission to the country.
Concretely, however, it is the case of lawful and law-abiding
Inhabitant of our country for a quarter of a century,
Long ago admitted for permanent residence,
Who seeks to return home.
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.
Neither his efforts nor those of the Government
any longer promise to find him an abiding place.
For nearly two years he was held
in custody of the immigration authorities at Ellis Island,
and if the Government has its way he seems
likely to be detained indefinitely,
perhaps for life,
for a cause known only to the Attorney General.
Because the respondent has no right of entry,
does it follow that he has no rights at all?
Does the power to exclude mean
that exclusion may be continued or effectuated
by any means?
When the alien's exclusion may only be accomplished
by means of indefinite confinement, it seems to me that
due process requires
that the alien be informed of the grounds for confinement
and have a fair chance to overcome them.
The Communist conspiratorial technique of infiltration
poses a problem which sorely tempts the Government
to resort to confinement of suspects
on secret information secretly judged.
I have not been one to discount the Communist evil.
But it is inconceivable to me that this measure
of simple justice and fair dealing,
a fair hearing with fair notice of charges,
would menace the security of this country.
No one can make me believe that we are that far gone.
I would have been in the dissent in this case, myself. Interestingly, I learned from an LA times article about the case (already linked above), the late Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, was a lowly law clerk, serving Justice Jackson, at the time this case was decided. Jackson authored the masterful dissent, but in a memo written while the case was under consideration, Rehnquist had advocated the arguments of the majority.
The LA Times article also gives follow-up information about Mr. Mezei's life after the case was over. Funnily enough, after winning the right to detain him on the island for the rest of his life, the government, it turns out, released him just a year or so after the decision, as part of its closing of the Ellis Island facility. Upon release, Mezei went home to Buffalo, New York, where he lived with his wife until her death.
Mezei then returned to Europe, and this time Hungary allowed him in. He lived outside of Bucharest until he died in the 1970s. The article says that Mezei's "nephew, John Mezey of Miami, has gone there to visit but could not find the grave."
*Note: After already publishing, I realized I forgot to make one change, to the poem title. So now I have done that.