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Tom Pattantyus: Jumping through hoops or over fences

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: June 3, 2010 8:58 p.m.
Updated: June 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.

I arrived in the United States with my wife and two sons in December 1963, after a very stormy (40-foot swells at times) Atlantic crossing on the old Queen Mary. I will never forget the sight of the Statue of Liberty, seen through the mist of the evening as the huge ship approached the 42nd Street Pier.

My wife and I escaped from communist Hungary in November 1956, and moved to England in March 1957.

During the heyday of the brain drain following the Sputnik crises, when the American government and major companies realized the shortages in certain critical professions, a lot of mathematicians, physicists and engineers were hired from abroad.

In early 1963, I received an invitation and a firm job offer from the Westinghouse Electric Corporation to join the corporate research and development center in Pittsburgh, Penn. as an electronic engineer.

Without delay, we applied for visas, only to learn the waiting list for Hungarian natives for U.S. visas was about 10 years. I was advised to get on the first-preference quota list that my prospective employer could request for my family and me.

Soon after, we all - even our sons, 5 1/2- and 3-years-old - received four-page application forms. There was a full page questioning us about our Nazi past and our communist affiliations, which sounds a little strange today given that a former close adviser (Van Jones) of the president is a self-avowed communist.

On another page, there were many questions asking if we planned to overthrow the lawful order of the U.S., break the laws laid down in the Constitution or harm, in any way, the president of the United States.

The set of questions concerning the president's safety was tragically justified by the assassination of John F. Kennedy shortly before our arrival to America. There were stern warnings on the application forms to answer all questions truthfully or face deportation for lying.

We had to wait until early September 1963 for the summons from the U.S. Consulate in Liverpool, only to learn that my wife and I were "communists" in the judgment of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Our visas were refused, and the consul advised us to obtain the permission of the State Department to immigrate through my future employer.

Why were we labeled communists? Both my wife and I started our university studies in 1951, and in the pile of registration papers that students normally get from the universities, there were prepared membership cards in the communist youth organization (DISz, or Alliance of Working Youth). The four years between 1949 and 1953 were the darkest years of communist terror in Hungary, and the refusal of a DISz membership card would have gotten our parents and our siblings fired from their jobs and terminated our university studies immediately.

We could even have gotten prison terms for being "enemies of the people." After graduation in 1955, we were automatically enrolled in a trade union (unions were also communist-affiliated organizations). We truthfully answered all the "communist" questions on the visa forms.

In the end, we came to the United States legally thanks to the invitation by - and the help of - a major American corporation and the education and several years of experience I brought with me in a profession that happened to be in high demand.

Yet, we did not consider it our right to live in this country. We were not offended by the request to carry our green cards with us all the time and show them, if requested.

There were other "indignities." All of us (children included) had been fingerprinted, first at the consulate in England and then at the Pittsburgh police station. Every January until 1969, we had to register by mailing an IBM card to the INS showing our address and employer.

Was illegal immigration an out-of-control problem in 1963? I don't recall that it was.

As an immigrant, I believe in lawfully entering, accepting and obeying the laws of the host country, learning English as soon as possible, respecting the social mores and being grateful for whatever rights immigrants may have.

Full rights must be earned - by becoming a citizen.

Tom Pattantyus is a retired electronic engineer and can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Right Here, Right Now" appears Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republican writers.


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