'Yearning to breathe free,' thousands seek, few get asylum in US

Predrag Stevic says that the Yugoslav government knows what he has been up to and that it is not pleased. He wants political asylum in the United States, to avoid the prison cell he claims is waiting for him back home in Yugoslavia.

Since coming to America in 1976 to visit his sister, Mr. Stevic - a young philosophy graduate - has been a member of Ravna Gora, an anticommunist group of fellow Yugoslavs based in Chicago. Such activity, he says, does not escape the notice of the government back home.

''They always keep tabs on you, one way or another,'' he says haltingly, through an interpreter. ''There are a lot of wrong things over there.''

Stevic's father-in-law, a US citizen and fellow Ravna Gora activist, was arrested during a trip to Yugoslavia in 1974, and spent three years in jail. Stevic says he feels he faces the same fate if he returns home.

But the US government does not agree. It says Stevic does not qualify for asylum, and it has tried for several years to send him back to his native land.

Stevic's case has traveled all the way to the US Supreme Court, which will hear it this fall. His struggle illustrates a larger point: Though famous Soviet dancers and a Chinese tennis star are quickly granted political shelter, it's difficult for the run-of-the-mill applicant to win asylum in the US.

An explosion in political unrest around the world has greatly increased the number of people who want to take refuge here. The result is a mess: Washington's asylum-granting machinery is clogged with applications, while the government and its critics argue about who should and should not qualify for asylum here.

The US practically requires ''a bullet with your name on it,'' complains one immigration lawyer, before it will let a non-Soviet alien take refuge in this country.

For instance, Dennis Brutus, a black South African poet and anti-apartheid activist, needed two years to win his battle against deportation. Mr. Brutus fought long and hard to have his homeland banned from the Olympic Games. Back home, he says, he was shot and imprisoned before being kicked into exile in 1966 .

But the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, for reasons based on classified information, has been trying to deport Brutus since 1981. Last month, a federal judge in Chicago finally granted him asylum. Brutus, Judge Irving Schwartz said, ''is a prime target . . . hated by just about every South African.''

The problems besetting asylum officials have been developing since the beginning of this decade. Before then, political asylum - the right to stay, temporarily, in the US - was usually granted only to those fleeing countries the US officially disapproved of, such as communist nations, or certain states in the Middle East. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) received only a few thousand pleas for asylum each year.

But in 1980 Congress passed a bill that opened the asylum process to people of all nations. Aliens had only to meet the UN's standard for granting asylum: ''a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.''

Then a wave of political crises swept the globe. Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua, general unrest in Central America, and boatlifts from Cuba and Haiti sent thousands of refugees running to America for shelter. INS field offices were suddenly swamped with asylum applications.

The INS has a backlog of 171,000 requests for political asylum, says Duke Austin, a spokesman. Slightly less than a third are from Cubans. Twenty-five thousand applications are from Salvadoreans. Iranians account for 14,000. Haitians, Afghans, and Nicaraguans are the next largest groups of applicants, he says.

Despite the impression given by such well-publicized cases as that of Hu Na, the Chinese tennis player recently granted asylum, the majority of requests are not approved. Last year the INS said ''yes'' to 3,946 asylum applications, and ''no'' to 7,500.

In part, government officials say, this is because many aliens file ''frivolous'' applications to buy time, knowing full well they can't be deported while their cases are pending. Others, who aren't really in danger at home, apply because they like the standard of living here.

Some applications verge on the bizarre. A Chilean woman applied for asylum on the grounds that her refusal to become a socialist or communist would lead to persecution back home; a judge pointed out that the Chilean government, while far from spotless, was itself antisocialist and anticommunist. In Los Angeles, the INS district office is considering the case of someone who has filed for political asylum from Sweden, a nation not known for being a hotbed of unrest.

But the US is simply too tough on hundreds of refugees who ask for asylum, critics claim.

As the INS now interprets the law, asylum applicants ''have to prove with near-certainty that they would be arrested upon returning,'' says Ann Ritter, Predrag Stevic's attorney. ''Many aliens fear they would be arrested, but can't show their name on an actual police list.''

In 1980, for instance, the INS Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that Stevic didn't have a ''well-founded fear of persecution,'' despite the arrest of his father-in-law back in Yugoslavia.

Bundled off to New York for deportation, Stevic tried to escape at Kennedy Airport. He was captured and placed in detention. Finally, a federal court ruled that he did indeed have a well-founded fear of persecution and that his deportation should be withheld. The INS, in turn, appealed; the Supreme Court will hear the case early this fall.

Tesfaye Desta (not his real name) escaped from Ethiopia by bribing a customs official, he says, in December of 1980. He had already been in and out of prison several times. But the INS denied his asylum petition, citing the fact that Ethiopia had not prevented his leaving. His appeal is pending.

''It's simple to decide another person's life when you're sitting behind a desk,'' Mr. Desta says.

An INS internal study on asylum, dated last December, concludes that at present ''there are few guidelines'' for examiners to apply when judging applications, and that it ''is extremely difficult'' for aliens to meet the standards required to win refuge.

''In one instance, a brother was granted asylum; a sister denied,'' says the report. ''Both applications, and the proof presented, were almost identical.''

The study also says that politics plays a big part in whether or not an asylum request will be granted. For instance, someone fleeing from El Salvador, a country whose government the US supports, must have a ''classic, textbook case'' to win asylum, the INS study says.

The report finishes by recommending that the INS establish an ''asylum officer corps,'' revise the asylum application, and develop some type of monitoring mechanism to make sure asylum applications are judged uniformly.

But the Stevic case may be the first step toward cleaning up the asylum mess. Immigration lawyers predict it will give the Supreme Court a forum to clarify what ''well-founded persecution'' means.

''It should affect a very significant number of other cases,'' says Arthur Helton, immigration director for the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights.

Government action to clarify the status of Cuban and Haitian refugees, en masse, would at one stroke slice off much of the INS's asylum-application backlog. INS officials expect that President Reagan or Congress will eventually make such a move.

''Most of these (Cuban) claims will probably never be processed,'' says one.

And general immigration reform could greatly ease the pressure on the US asylum process. The Simpson immigration reform bill, which has passed the Senate , would simply grant permanent residence to any alien who entered the United States before Jan. 1, 1977. The House, however, is unlikely to act on a similar proposal,since House Speak Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. has vowed not to let it come to the floor.

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