The apparently unprecedented US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) decision to grant political asylum to a 12-year-old Ukrainian boy has triggered concern both here and in Washington about the decision's legality and possible Soviet retaliation.
It is the first such decision State Department and INS officials can recall involving a minor seeking asylum on his own.
Seventh-grader Walter Poloychak had emigrated with his brother, sister, and parents to Chicago from the Ukraine last January. He ran away from home a week ago when he learned that his family planned to return to the Soviet Union.
Chicago lawyer Julian Kulas, who had represented Walter's two aunts, who also live in the city, filed a petition on the boy's behalf. He received word July 21 from INS officials that Walter's petition to be allowed to stay in the US had been granted.
"I think its's kidnapping -- an emotional, political decision that that has no apparent legal rationale," commented a Washington lawyer familiar with asylum cases. The attorney, who asked not to be named, said: "To allow a 12-year-old boy to chart his own future violates every canon governing what we do with children in this country. If a 12-year-old, why not a 6-year-old?"
But Mr. Kulas, admitting that the case is an unusual one with far-reaching political implications, views the questions of age as irrelevant.
"Knowing the situation and knowing the boy involved, I felt a legal responsibility to do what I did," he says. "He is old enough to know the difference between life in the Soviet Union and life in the US. He notices that the children are much happier here and express themselves more freely. He's found a new way of life, new friends, new sports events. He's received a bicycle from his relatives. . . . Under no circumstances does he want to return [to the Ukraine]."
But some federal officials say that if the situation were reversed, with an American youngster seeking asylum in the Soviet Union on a family visit there, Washington would not stand idly by.
"I'm quite sure we'd do everything we could within the confines of our authority to get the child back into the US and assist the parents," concedes a State Department source.
Sovit officials in this country have communicated with the Poloychak family on several occasions and apparently have stipulated that Walter must accompany them back to the Ukraine if they are to obtain re-entry documents.
Walter's 17-year-old sister, Natalie, has her own visa and plans to remain in the US. Apparently Soviet authorities would not require her return as a condition of readmitting the rest of the family.
Officially the State Department downplays the possibility of Soviet retaliation.
"We're concerned, but I don't think the overriding feeling is that his staying will necessarily trigger retaliatory action," says the departmental spokesman.