Marcella Lisowski: Public Charge for Life

By: Esther Cho

Case File: 54833/85

Immigrants: Marcella Lisowski and Anton Lisowski

A Look Into Lisowski

Marcella Lisowski and her husband arrived in the U.S. through Ellis Island in October of 1916. They hailed from Glasgow, Scotland, where Marcella had resided since 1903. Prior to that, she had been living in Russia where she was a subject of the crown.

All seemed well until June of 1919, when Marcella was committed by her husband to Kings Park State Hospital. The hospital reported her to immigration officials as someone who had become a public charge within five years of her arrival to the United States. According to the investigation reports that were filed by the Bureau of Immigration, Marcella had become mentally unstable. Her symptoms included suspecting that her husband was unfaithful to her and refusing to eat.

There are many gaps in Marcella’s file, ranging from her admittance in 1919 to a more thorough investigation that took place in 1921. After that, the file remained untouched until 1935, with a final document surfacing in 1937. During the 1921 investigation, it was decided that Marcella would be deported. This was despite the fact that Anton was willing to pay for her care in a private institution rather than a state-run asylum.

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

Anton claimed that he would even hire a full-time caregiver for his wife. This was to show that she should not have been considered a public charge because he had the means to take care of her without the financial help of the State. But still, Marcella’s warrant for deportation proceeded. After some persistence, the couple became compliant with the U.S. in their own deportation, and Anton even agreed to pay the couple’s passage back to Russia.

During this investigation, it was also stated that Marcella would become a public charge again in the future in addition to being a public charge at the present moment. To be “Likely to become a Public Charge” meant that Marcella previously had a mental illness before entering the U.S., and therefore should have never been allowed to enter at all. This is the opposite conclusion from her first physician’s analysis in 1919, which determined that she had developed the condition while in the U.S. It is also interesting to note that when Marcella was first admitted into Kings Park State Hospital, she was able to communicate and speak with doctors clearly. But, three years after being in asylum, she was unable to speak at all, to the extent that she was not able to be present at her own trial. At the conclusion of her 1921 trial, immigration officials ruled that Marcella was to be deported at her own expense or the expense of her husband.

However, the 1935 documents show that this was not the case. Marcella’s lack of passport, as well as frayed diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. between the years of 1917 to 1933, postponed her deportation. This was also due to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the change in government within Russia. In 1935, Lisowski’s file was actually sent to an ambassador in Moscow. In 1937, U.S. immigration officials received word that any Russian who left prior to 1917 was no longer considered a citizen, and therefore would not be accepted by Soviet officials as returned deportees.

The final 1937 letter in Marcella’s case file shows that she continued to have a warrant out for her deportation, despite officials also stating that she could not be deported and would have to remain in the United States. Deportation would always include the involvement of more than one state, but since Marcella was the subject of two countries that did not want her, she was left stateless and with little to do 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 correspondence between the assistant of the Acting Commissioner-General of Immigration and the District Director for Ellis Island. It reveals that all efforts have been made to deport Marcella, but that they have failed due to the U.S.S.R no longer accepting any persons who left Russia prior to November 7, 1917.

The year 1917 was a year of change for Russia, specifically, the Bolshevik Revolution. The United States froze diplomatic relations with the newly formed Soviet Union immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, and they remained suspended until 1933. As shown in the letter, it was in 1934 that immigration officials asked an ambassador in Moscow to inquire about Marcella’s deportation. The delay in Marcella’s case by nearly 16 years since her initial court date was caused ultimately by the lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but it also shows the persistence of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.

Although the case had been laid to rest in this letter, there continued to be a warrant out for her deportation, even though it was known amongst authorities that this was not legally feasible. The letter even states that if Marcella was to be put in prison due to the deportation warrant, authorities should release her since she could not be deported. Yet, a pointless warrant was still placed on Marcella for the rest of her life. This goes to show the obsessive nature that was placed around her case. For 16 years, officials had actively tried to deport Marcella on charges that may have never been valid to begin with, and even when it was known that it was legally impossible to deport her, 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

Marcella’s story reveals the way an individual can be at the mercy of the government. She was a woman trapped in an asylum, unable to be deported because of the Soviet Union’s policy, but held as a public charge with a permanent warrant for her arrest. If an appeal had been made when she first was admitted to the asylum, she would have been able to speak and defend herself against the warrant.

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

This is similar to how immigration courts run now. There are many immigrants today who have extremely delayed court days just like Marcella. This causes evidence to be buried or no longer usable. Marcella’s case is also filled with bias. Using the vague language of the LPC clause, she is charged under broad and nonspecific terms. The role of lawyers is also a relevant topic in both Marcella’s situation and in cases today. Anton was able to hire a lawyer, but it did not help Marcella’s case. In a four-page report, the lawyer spoke only six sentences in total. Marcella’s husband was the main advocate on her behalf, but immigration officers dismissed much of what he said. Today, there are many immigrants who do not even have a lawyer to speak for them. They often end up accepting deportation rulings in their own cases due to little understanding of the jargon within immigration law.

Questions to Consider

1) How can average citizens assist legally unrepresented immigrants?

2) Immigration courts are often flooded with cases and this can lengthen the time until a case is heard. What are some realistic, possible solutions?