A Sharon man who has lived for 56 years in Mercer County is fighting a last-ditch legal battle to remain here, as the federal government takes the final steps toward deporting him because of his past as a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Anton Geiser, 87, has been telling judges for eight years that he was compelled to patrol with a gun outside of concentration camps near Oranienburg and Buchenwald. At every stage, courts have said that anyone who patrolled a Nazi concentration camp -- voluntarily or not -- must leave.
Mr. Geiser's attorney, Adrian Roe, is set to argue the case Dec. 6 before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Fairfax, Va., in what may be his client's last stand before he is placed on a plane to Europe.
They are hanging their hopes on a 2009 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that told the federal government to clarify laws barring from the country people who participated in persecution. The court's decision in the case of Negusie v. Holder acknowledged that an African man's involuntary participation in atrocities might not bar him from staying in this country.
Mr. Geiser "wants to stay where his family is," Mr. Roe said. The retired steelworker's five children are here, and they visit him in the hospital where he is recovering from multiple leg fractures sustained in a fall down stairs. "Whatever [legal] standard applies to all other people should apply to Mr. Geiser."
Federal agencies, though, have taken the position that standards applied to, say, Africans may not apply to Mr. Geiser.
"The government's argument is going to be, Nazis are different," said Bryan Lonegan, an attorney with Legal Aid Society and former clinical professor of immigration and human rights at Seton Hall University, who has published a scholarly article on the Negusie case. "We still find the Holocaust to be the most abhorrent part of world history, and that's hard to overcome.
"But are child Nazis different?"
Mr. Geiser was born in the Croatian sector of what was then Yugoslavia, according to court records, and was 17 when Hitler's Germany seized that country. Because he was part of a German-speaking enclave, he was drafted, ending up in the feared Waffen S.S., on the Russian front. He was later chosen for the "Death's Head" battalions charged with guarding concentration camps.
Mr. Geiser told courts that he was ordered to shoot anyone who tried to escape, but never had to do so. When the Allies liberated the area, he buried his uniform and blended into life in post-War Germany and Austria. In 1956 in Austria, he applied for, and received, a visa to come to America under laws meant to accommodate refugees. He became a citizen in a Mercer County courtroom in 1962.
The laws under which Mr. Geiser became a citizen, and other laws enacted since, bar from the country anyone who "assisted in the persecution" of others based on race, religion or national origin. Some of the laws refer specifically to Nazis, while others are more general. When the Department of Justice becomes aware that a persecutor is in the country, it moves to revoke his citizenship or immigration status and then deport the person, and it has been moving through that process in regard to Mr. Geiser since 2004.
"Hey, hold it, this guy was admitted," Mr. Roe said. He added that other people who were concentration camp guards were admitted to the United States in the 1950s after extensive background checks determined that they weren't responsible for atrocities. The State Department background check on Mr. Geiser is lost, so the details of the decision to let him enter are unavailable.
The government should "defer to what the agency did" in 1956, Mr. Roe said.
The Department of Justice Office of Special Investigations argued otherwise, and both a U.S. District Court judge and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found against Mr. Geiser. A panel of 3rd Circuit judges found that: "[T]he experiences of prisoners at Nazi concentration camps fit squarely within the plain meaning of 'persecution.' "
So Mr. Geiser was a persecutor and can't be an American.
With his citizenship revoked, Mr. Geiser was then subjected to deportation proceedings. In 2009, though, the legal landscape changed.
That's when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Daniel Girmai Negusie, a half-Ethiopian, half-Eritrean man. He had been forced by Eritrea to guard brutal camps in which captured Ethiopians were subjected to tiny, dank cells or extended time in the baking sun. He escaped to the United States.
Other courts concluded that Mr. Negusie couldn't stay, whether he had wanted to be a persecutor or not. But the Supreme Court found that the law wasn't clear on whether one had to voluntarily persecute others in order to be barred from the United States. The Board of Immigration Appeals, the court said, should reconsider whether to deport Mr. Negusie, and should write a rule clarifying whether involuntary participants in persecution are allowed to stay.
Like many immigration matters, Mr. Negusie's current status is not public. Neither Mr. Negusie, nor the attorney who represented him before the Supreme Court could be reached.
There is no public indication that the Board of Immigration Appeals has written the rule, requested by the Supreme Court 31/2 years ago, governing involuntary persecutors. Both Mr. Lonegan and Mr. Roe said they can find no public record of any such rule.
The board's spokeswoman did not, by Friday, address questions posed by the Post-Gazette on Tuesday. The Department of Justice on Wednesday referred all questions to the board. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also involved in the case, could not address questions Friday.
"I have reason to believe that the government is engaged in some sort of rule-making process related to Negusie," Mr. Roe said. Would any rule emerging from that process help Mr. Geiser? "We don't know. If there's some recognition that involuntary conduct [that persecutes others] is to be excused, we would like that standard to be applied to Mr. Geiser."
Mr. Lonegan wouldn't be surprised if the board hasn't acted.
"I don't think [the status of involuntary persecutors] is the most important issue on the Board of Immigration Appeals plate right now," he said. The issue doesn't come up much.
The world is replete, though, with conflicts in which teenagers are compelled to fight and, sometimes, commit atrocities. A few such youths make it to America. Mr. Lonegan represented one such person, Salifou Yankene, of the Ivory Coast.
"That particular kid had been coerced into serving in this rebel group," Mr. Lonegan said. "When his mother resisted, they cut off his brother's arm." So he did what he was told, including being present for atrocities, until his mother got him out and sent him to the U.S.
"The judge agreed with us that he was not [a persecutor]," said Mr. Lonegan, "because at the time he participated in atrocities he was just a teenage boy."
Mr. Geiser's similar argument didn't prevail before an immigration judge in 2010. If the board doesn't overturn that judge's decision, Mr. Roe can appeal back to the 3rd Circuit, but there is no guarantee that his client would be allowed to stay in the U.S. during that process.
The government "will occasionally ask me, how is his health," said Mr. Roe. Any humanitarian concerns, though, haven't paused the deportation push.
If he loses before the board, said Mr. Roe, "I believe the [government's] present position is that he would be removed to Austria."
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter, @richelord.