Marcella Lisowski: Public Charge for Life

By: Esther Cho

Case File #98755

Marcella Lisowski, Anton Lisowski

A Look Into Lisowski

Marcella Lisowski and her husband arrived in the U.S. through Ellis Island in October 1916. She hailed from Glasgow, Scotland where she had resided since 1903. Prior to that Lisowski had been living in Russia where she was a subject of the crown. All seemed well until June 1919 when Lisowski became a public charge and was held in Kings Park State Hospital for becoming unstable within five years of her arrival to the U.S. Her husband committed her, not knowing that she would become a public charge. Her reports originally stated that Lisowski thought that her husband was unfaithful to her and refused to eat. The gaps between this particular case file go from Lisowski’s admittance in 1919 to a more thorough investigation taking place in 1921. Lisowski’s file remained untouched until 1935 with a final document surfacing in 1937. During the 1921 investigation it was decided that Lisowski would be deported. This is despite the fact that Liswoski’s husband was willing to pay for her care in a private institution rather than state run asylum.

“Her husband had also on multiple occasions asked the hospital to release Lisowski but was denied each time.”

He claimed that he would even hire a full time caregiver for his wife. This seemed to make it so that perhaps Lisowski should not have been considered a public charge because she had the means to take care of herself without the financial help of the State. But still, Lisowski’s warrant for deportation proceeded. The couple were compliant with the U.S. in their own deportation. Lisowski’s husband agreed to pay the couple’s passage back to Russia. During this investigation it was also stated that Lisowski was now also likely to become a public charge in addition to her current public charge title. To be likely to become a public charge means that Lisowski had previously had mental illness before entering the U.S. and therefore should have never been allowed into the U.S. at all. This is opposite from her first physicians analysis in 1919 that determined that Lisowski had developed the condition while in the U.S. It is also interesting to note that when Lisowski was first admitted into King’s Park State Hospital, she was able to communicate and speak with doctors clearly. But, 3 years after being in asylum she was unable to speak at all to the extent that she was not able to be present in her own trial. So while at the end of her 1921 trial Lisowski was to be deported at the expense of her and her husband, the 1935 documents show that this was not the case. Her lack of passport as well as diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. between the years of 1917 to 1933 paused Lisowski’s ability to be deported. This was due to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and change in government in Russia. In 1935 Lisowski’s file is actually sent to an ambassador in Moscow. Unfortunately, in 1937 they receive word that any Russian who left prior to 1917 is no longer considered a citizen and therefore will not be accepted in as a deportee. The final 1937 letter in Lisowski’s case file shows that Lisowski continued to have a warrant out for her deportation despite stating that she could not be deported and would remain in the United States. Deportation will always include more than one state, Lisowski was the subject of two countries that did not want her, leaving her stateless and unable to do anything but stand still.

The Letter

Correspondence between the Acting Commissioner’s Assistant and the District Director regarding the deportation of Marcella Lisowski.

The document above is a letter corresponding between Acting Commissioner’s Assistant and the District Director. It reveals that all efforts have been made to deport Lisowski but failed due to the the U.S.S.R no longer accepting any persons who left Russia prior to November 7, 1917 as Soviet Citizens and therefore not to be accepted as deportees. The year of 1917 was a year of change for Russia, in specific, the Bolshevik Revolution. America froze it’s relations immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. The U.S. did not pursue any diplomatic relations with Russia. No diplomatic relations were established until 1933. And as we see in this letter it is in 1934 that immigration officials asked an ambassador in Moscow to inquire about Marcella’s deportation. The delay of Marcella’s case by nearly 16 years since her court date was caused ultimately by the lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia, but it also shows the persistence of the U.S. Office of Immigration. Although the case had been laid to rest in this letter, there continues to be a warrant out for Lisowski’s deportation, even when it is known amongst authorities that this is legally not possible. It even states that if she is to be put in prison for this warrant, authorities should release her since she cannot be deported. Yet a pointless warrant is placed on Lisowski for the rest of her life. This goes to show the obsessive nature that was placed around Lisowski’s case. For 16 years officials had actively tried to deport Lisowski on charges that may have never been valid to begin with and when it was known that it was legally impossible to deport Lisowski, a warrant still remained on her record. Xenophobia during this time in America was so present towards many Russian immigrants that it even had a name, the Red Scare.

Why It Matters

Lisowski’s story reveals the way an individual can be at the mercy of the government. She is a woman trapped in an asylum, unable to deport because of new U.S.S.R laws but held as a public charge with an unappealable warrant of her arrest. Her appeal took years and facts began to change against her favor. If the appeal had been done when she first was admitted to the asylum, she would be able to speak and defend herself. This is similar to how immigration courts run now.

“She is at the mercy of a system that seems to be working against her through time, power, and resources.”

There are many immigrants today who have extremely delayed court days just like Lisowski. This causes evidence to be buried or no longer usable. Marcella’s case is also  filled with bias, using language of LPC she is put under broad terms with no valid cause for being held in an asylum. The lack of lawyers in the court is also a parallel between Marcella and the immigrants today. Liwoski’s husband was able to hire a lawyer, but it didn’t help. In a four page report, the lawyer speaks only six sentences in total. Marcella’s husband is the main representor for her case and the immigration officers dismiss much of what he says. Today there are many immigrants who don’t even have a lawyer to speak for them. They plead their own cases when there’s little understanding of the jargon of confusing immigration law.


Should immigrants be granted access to public health care, including mental?

How can average citizens assist unrepresented immigrants?

Immigrations courts are often flooded with cases and this can lengthen the time until a case is heard, what are some realistic, possible solutions?