THE recent decision by the Justice Department to reopen the cases of 150,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans denied asylum in the United States was a victory for due process of law. On review, all these individuals may not be granted legal residency in the US, but at least their cases will be more fairly considered. In the past, application for asylum from those fleeing El Salvador and Guatemala met a nearly automatic ``no.'' Behind this lay the State Department's judgment that these countries were not repressive and, therefore, people leaving them were ``economic refugees'' rather than bonafide political refugees fearing persecution and possible death.
The facts of life in El Salvador and Guatemala demolished these State Department definitions. War and death-squad activity in El Salvador left little doubt that individuals heading north could have motivations other than a yearning for better wages. Guatemala's dismal human-rights record, underscored recently by the army's slaughter of 14 unarmed protesters in the village of Santiago de Atitlan, provides ample basis for refugee claims.
The US, however, has supported the governments of both countries, and both have some trappings of democracy, including elections. The State Department's reluctance to acknowledge the refugees, while cynical, was understandable. But it hardly justified a denial of justice to thousands who had well-grounded fears of returning home.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service's judicial officers, chronically overworked and often poorly trained, were happy to follow State's dictum. Only 4 percent of Salvadorans and 2 percent of Guatemalans received asylum from 1981 to 1989. By contrast, 30 percent of Nicaraguans, whose Sandinista government the US actively opposed, were allowed in. The imbalance should change under the new court settlement, which ends a class-action suit brought in 1985.
Immigration courts will be hard-pressed to handle the asylum cases likely to flood from this settlement. More resources will be needed. But the problems of honestly reviewing the refugees' cases pale before the problem of allowing an obvious abuse of the refugee adjudication process.