Sunday, September 11, 2016

On the Responsibilities of Citizenship

In the past, this land has been renowned as the melting pot of nations. 

I am sure a lot of our parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents, however, are turning in their graves as my friend and colleague Paul Zoltan writes these cautionary words. The full support of the country our parents loved and clamored for, the USA — which they thought no one could surpass because of the liberty they won at such a hard price — would disappoint them. Our predecessors had to forsake their own countries. They left other safe harbors as well because they thought no one could ever offer them a better chance at safeguarding their liberties as this one true nation, yet that privilege now seems elusive. 

What was protected by the constitution they enthusiastically adopted as their own seems now to be a shard, used arbitrarily to break the most vulnerable, and indeed, many other populations as well. 

But I leave you with Paul's words, because he says it so much better... 

Paul's father's naturalization papers from 1965,
hanging in his immigration law offices

On theResponsibilities of Citizenship
By Paul Zoltan

In the waiting area of my small law practice hangs my father’s naturalization certificate. He took the oath of allegiance and became a United States citizen when I was all of eight days old.

My dad had arrived in this country as a refugee from Hungary six years earlier. The story of his exile begins, improbably, in Belgium. In 1958, two years after Hungary’s tragic rebellion, my father was chosen to represent his nation’s engineering achievements at the World Exposition in Brussels. Though Hungary’s Communist regime had encouraged him and other participants openly to share ideas with engineers from outside the Soviet Bloc, my father did so with trepidation: having grown up a member of Hungary’s landed aristocracy, he belonged to what the Communists called the “suspect class.” His three half-brothers, who’d never fought in the war, were sent off to Soviet work camps as “war criminals,” never to be seen again. When a telegram reached my father in Brussels demanding his immediate return to Budapest, he smelled a rat. Purportedly it came from the university where he taught, but his dean insisted she hadn’t sent it. So my father sought out the British Secret Service.

My father hilariously related the story of his defection. Suffice it here to say that his interrogation by the British in the back of a car swerving through Brussels traffic made a heart-stopping yarn. I wish he were here to tell it but he is, as they say, in a better place.

But Great Britain wasn’t where my father felt he belonged. He belonged, he felt, in this land of the free. My father’s story exemplifies why many, many people have come to this country over the decades: to escape tyranny.

In this election year I’m compelled to say for him what my father would doubtless be telling anyone who’d listen: we ourselves are flirting with tyranny. Democracy depends as much upon the limits we place upon our government as it does upon majority outcomes. If 51% of the electorate votes to kill and eat the other 49, thank heaven they won’t get their way. Better yet, thank our founding fathers’: their prescient protections of our civil liberties would leave that majority vainly licking their chops.

In popular culture, and even in our schools, we are taught that democracy boils down to majority rule. Nonsense. Hitler was democratically elected. Closer to home, it was our democratically elected president who, in 1942, ordered the internment of roughly 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese origin – nearly two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.

Hand-written copy of the proposed Bill of Rights, cropped to show what was to later become the 5th Amendment, 1789

Atop the list of obligations and responsibilities of citizenship, I would have to place studying our nation’s Bill of Rights. Those first ten amendments to the United States Constitution form the bulwark against the tyranny of what our founders called “mobocracy.” For the first time in my not-short lifetime, we’ve a major party candidate who accuses this nation’s president of conspiring with our enemies, a candidate who incites violence and insists that all the adherents to a religious faith – 2.2 billion of them, 2 million of whom happen to be citizens of this country – hate the United States of America.

In these days I believe the single greatest obligation of citizenship is to remember and respect the framers’ vision of a government with limited powers. Think for a moment on the import of this passage from the Fifth Amendment: “No person shall… shall be compelled to be a witness against himself; nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

With more and more of the electorate yearning for the simple solutions of a populist strongman – someone in the oval office who might be heard to growl,” “Do you feel lucky, punk?” – I would urge that we in this room acknowledge and, in discourse with others, patiently explain the importance of constitutional limits on popular outcomes. If, by virtue of my race, I am presumed either guilty or violent, this is tyranny. If I am forced to pray to another’s god or prevented from worshiping my own, this is tyranny. And, I would insist, if I am ever tortured, no matter the reason, this “cruel and unusual punishment” is also tyranny. It matters not at all if a majority of Americans – that hungry 51% - think otherwise.

Of course I’m not saying that the majority of Americans are closet cannibals. Nor am I saying that the majority’s always wrong, mostly wrong, or even often wrong. But they are indeed sometimes wrong. And a whole lot of folks – maybe even a majority – are clamoring this year for things that would make my father, a beamingly proud American who also happened to be an atheist with a thick foreign accent – wonder what has become of this nation to which he swore his allegiance some half a century ago.

Steven Zoltan, Paul's dad, who was proud to call
the USA his home: let's not let him, or others
like him, down. We cannot! 

Reflecting upon what it means to be a citizen, and what it meant to my father to become a citizen, I believe that in this moment our paramount duty is reacquaint ourselves with the architecture of this great republic – with a wall between church and state and a foundation of individual liberties.


In 1992, upon receiving his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Minnesota, Paul Zoltan determined to devote his legal practice solely to immigration. In a way, the choice was made for him: as the son of a Hungarian refugee, he felt compelled to work so that the refugees and immigrants of today were welcomed as his father was, over four decades ago.

Paul Steven Zoltan has practiced exclusively immigration law since 1992. One of the founders of Dallas' Child Refugee Support Network, he trains and supervises volunteers for Dallas Catholic Charities' pro se asylum clinic. He has served as liaison between the Houston Asylum Office and the Texoma Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and has presented at numerous regional and national AILA conferences. He has chaired the District 6A Grievance Committee for the Texas Bar, as well as the boards of directors of Proyecto Adelante and the Center for Survivors of Torture. Mr. Zoltan served on the advisory board of the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee and, for over a decade, coordinated the Dallas Section of AILA. He has taught both Immigration Law and Legal Writing and Reasoning at the University of Texas at Dallas. In 2012, the Super Lawyers rating service named Mr. Zoltan a Rising Star.

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