A human rights victory

THIS week's US Supreme Court decision on granting asylum to certain aliens is welcome news for all those cherishing a high human rights standard. The court ruled that aliens wishing to avoid deportation from the United States need prove only a ``well-founded fear,'' rather than a ``clear probability,'' of persecution in their homelands if they are forced to return there. The Reagan administration has over the years tended to see those from communist countries as refugees fleeing persecution, and would-be immigrants from other lands as mere ``economic refugees.'' But those fleeing places like El Salvador and Guatemala, where death squads and ``disappearances'' are common, have good reason not to want to go home again, as the court has now wisely recognized.

Somewhat ironically, given the administration's Nicaragua policy, the ruling was made in a case involving a Nicaraguan woman in the US since 1979 and afraid to return to her homeland because of fear of persecution by the Sandinistas on account of her brother's outspoken political opposition to the Managua regime.

The ruling implicitly acknowledges the difficulties refugees have in quantifying the threats against them in their homelands. In the majority opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens suggested that, for example, a person with ``a 10 percent chance of being shot, tortured, or otherwise persecuted'' would be eligible for asylum.

The decision in effect forces the Justice Department into a closer reading of Congress's intent in passing the Refugee Act of 1980, which brought US law into harmony with international standards and replaced a hodgepodge of US laws dealing with refugees from various parts of the world with a single standard.

The numbers of people affected by this ruling are not so great as to cause concern about the US's being ``overrun'' with refugees. But the ruling is a clear victory for a high standard of human rights and fulfillment of the historic mission of the US as a haven for refugees from around the world.

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