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Asylum: political sanctuary or criminal haven?

High court to consider if Guatemalan's violent past should keep himfrom US.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1999


To his friends, Juan Anibal Aguirre-Aguirre is a Las Vegas carpet cleaner, a hard-working immigrant reaching for a piece of the American dream.

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To the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Mr. Aguirre is something entirely different. He is a Guatemalan thug who sneaked into the country and is now trying to justify his past crimes by posing as a political refugee.

Today, in a case that will help chart the course of US refugee policy, the US Supreme Court will consider whether Aguirre is worthy of political sanctuary in America or should be deported to Guatemala where some say he faces persecution, torture, and perhaps even death.

"The implications are quite grave," says Karen Musalo, a refugee law specialist at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

International human rights experts - including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - are watching closely to see if the nation's highest court embraces a more restrictive stance in terms of who is granted sanctuary in the US.

An international test

A decision to deport Aguirre to Guatemala would set a dangerous precedent that might encourage European judges to adopt similar reasoning, some legal analysts say. And that could establish a trend in international humanitarian law that would be broadly inconsistent with current UN treaties, they say.

Others worry a decision to grant Aguirre asylum might open the door for terrorists to find safehaven in the US.

At issue is a provision of US refugee law that says any refugee who commits a "serious nonpolitical crime" must be denied sanctuary and deported back to his or her country of origin.

The key question in Aguirre's case is whether he committed serious nonpolitical crimes.

Immigration officials believe he did. Human rights lawyers counter that his alleged crimes were political acts and somewhat mitigated by the horrendous conditions that existed during the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980s.

The relevant facts in Aguirre's case date back more than a decade when he was a student leader in Guatemala. He helped organize violent antigovernment demonstrations that included stopping public buses, forcing the passengers off, and setting the vehicles ablaze.

In 1992, he fled to the United States after receiving death threats from both the military and the guerrillas in Guatemala. The US government is seeking to deport him, citing the violent demonstrations and bus burnings as evidence of "serious nonpolitical crimes" that disqualify him from US asylum.

An immigration judge and the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco believe Aguirre should be granted asylum, finding that his alleged wrongdoing was not egregious enough to warrant his potentially dangerous return to Guatemala.

Immigration officials and the Board of Immigration Appeals believe he is unworthy of sanctuary because of what they view as a serious criminal past.

Humanitarian nature of law

Aguirre's lawyer says the immigration service and immigration appeals board have lost sight of the humanitarian nature of the refugee statute.