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Opinion | Nothing left to lose?

President Ronald Reagan said that the acid test of a nation’s liberty and system of government is determined by the gate test.

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To coincide with Independence Day, many foreign nationals will publicly renounce all loyalties to their country of origin, pledge their allegiance to the United States, and officially become U.S. citizens.

Witnessing people from all walks of life and from every continent become citizens creates an infectious patriotism and offers a rare glimpse into the sacrifice others make to become an Americans.

In evaluating other countries, Ronald Reagan said that the acid test of a nation’s liberty and system of government is determined by the gate test. This test was a simple observation of a nation’s borders to see which side of the gate had a lock and armed guards. The test is pass-fail. If the country had guards to keep its citizens from getting out, then it fails the gate test, but a country that must guard to prevent people from getting in, passes.

This test examines perceptions of future opportunity to determine which country would gain population if people were allowed to accept or reject citizenship based on a vote of their feet. There are some countries that people yearn to inhabit and others they would leave immediately if they could.

Almost since inception, the United States has received high marks on the gate test. But, the journey to citizenship is not easy. Without experiencing or observing the process, it is difficult to fully appreciate the sacrifices legal immigrants make for the privilege of being  called Americans.

In fact, 70 years ago this month, Lt. Franciszek Jarecki became a United States citizen. His path to citizenship required a literal act of Congress. Because he had defected from Poland, and was a former member of the Polish Communist Party, he had to have a congressional dispensation.

Unlike today, the Poland of Jercki’s era failed the gate test. Its people wanted to leave, but guards kept them in. Jarecki, though, was a pilot and had been trained to fly the state-of-the-art MiG-15. This high-performance aircraft was by all accounts the best jet fighter in the world. 

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Allied pilots fighting in Korea took notice when this new aircraft was introduced into the conflict. The MiG’s advanced technology had aeronautical engineers scratching their heads. It was critical to acquire one of these planes to fully check out its design and determine its vulnerabilities.

To this end, the CIA instigated Operation Moolah, which promised any MiG-15 pilot $50,000 upon defection and political asylum in America. And, to prove the genuineness of the proposal, the testimony of Lt. Jarecki appeared on leaflets that were dropped over North Korea touting  his warm welcome and acceptance.

At the time of his defection, Jarecki was only 22 years old. He was an exceptional student as only elite pilots were allowed to operate the MiG-15. But, in Poland at the time, the Soviet fist dominated everything, and the centuries long antagonism between Russia and Poland was inescapable. Fences and guards held the people in, and any sense of freedom was extinguished by the Soviet puppet government in Warsaw.

Keeping his own counsel, Jarecki shared his desire for freedom with no one. When his unit was moved closer to the Baltic Sea, a military briefing inadvertently revealed that the Danish island of Bornholm was a short distance from his base and contained a small landing strip. 

One morning while leading his patrol, he decided without much advanced planning to make a run for freedom. Wanting it to appear that his plane was having mechanical issues while also getting under Soviet radar, he dropped his excess fuel tanks and made a severe dive without any communications with the other pilots on his patrol.

Realizing that time was critical, Jarecki flew very low above the water but was noticed by another pilot and began to hear chatter on his radio that Soviet planes were being scrambled to stop him. He was able to avoid further detection and, in a matter of minutes, had landed his plane undamaged, on Danish soil.

His defection was risky as the consequences were severe. In fact, a few months before his flight to freedom, another Polish pilot had tried to defect but didn’t have an allied airfield as close. That pilot was caught, tried for treason, and without any due process or legal niceties, summarily executed. Jarecki knew the price was high. What he didn’t know was that his mother would be arrested and imprisoned because of her son’s defection. Another gate test failure.

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Nevertheless, he succeeded and provided the West with the first completely intact MiG-15. Engineers from the United States were immediately dispatched to conduct a detailed examination of the plane, and Jarecki was on hand to explain the maneuverability from his pilot’s perspective.

Once the aircraft was completely reviewed, photographed, and documented, it was returned to Poland by ship. Even though Denmark was a NATO member, its proximity to Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries was such a cause of worry that Danish officials felt returning the plane even without the pilot, would serve as a goodwill gesture.

Jarecki was treated as a hero and the Free Polish government in London recognized his service with a medal. From London he went to the United States, where he confirmed his status as a defector and supplied information about Soviet air capabilities, tactics, and his experience as a MiG pilot.

While the United States compensated him and gave him asylum, he could not become a citizen. U.S. policy required anyone seeking citizenship to have been in the country for several years, and  precluded former communists from an easy path to naturalization.

But there was an exception, and that was for Congress to pass an act, specific to Jarecki, which effectively waived these requirements. Given the large Polish American population of his district, then-Congressman Gerald Ford sponsored the legislation to allow Jarecki to become an American.

Seventy years ago, this act was passed, providing yet another example of how the United States passed the gate test with flying colors! 

Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at [email protected].

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Will Sellers is an associate justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

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