Court Backs INS on Deportation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 1999; Page A2
The Supreme Court yesterday buttressed the federal government's authority to deport political refugees who have committed crimes in their homelands, regardless of the punishment they could face upon return.
The nine justices unanimously ruled against a Guatemalan protester who had set buses on fire and beaten passengers, embracing a Justice Department view that foreigners who have committed serious nonpolitical crimes outside the United States are ineligible for asylum.
The justices reversed a lower court ruling that said immigration officials must consider, among other factors, whether an alien's actions were "grossly out of proportion to their political objective" and what torture, imprisonment or other persecution the alien could suffer if deported.
Written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the decision gave great deference to immigration officials and how they handle asylum matters. The court said the executive branch, rather than the federal bench, knows best how to carry out a policy that could affect relations with other countries and have diplomatic repercussions.
Such a view is consistent with past rulings giving the administration a strong hand in deciding which foreigners find shelter here. But some critics said yesterday's decision could hurt people who pose no real danger here but face torture and even death at home.
Federal refugee law protects foreigners fleeing persecution in their home country based on their political views. But the law bars relief for aliens who have committed "a serious nonpolitical crime outside the United States" before arriving here.
Juan Anibal Aguirre-Aguirre tried to fight deportation in 1994 by claiming that his political activities in Guatemala, which included protesting the government's abuse of students and its high bus fares, made him a government target. An immigration judge ruled for him, but the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed, focusing on Aguirre-Aguirre's burning of buses, assaults on passengers and vandalism, which it characterized as serious nonpolitical crimes.
Yesterday the Supreme Court upheld that approach, saying that the "plain language" of refugee law does not require immigration officials who are looking at an applicant's wrongdoing to weigh whether he will be subject to persecution if he returns home.
"The BIA, in effect, found [Aguirre-Aguirre] ineligible . . . even on the assumption he could establish a threat of persecution," Kennedy wrote. "This approach is consistent with the language and purposes of the statute."
The refugee rule stemmed from a United Nations protocol three decades ago. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned in a "friend of the court" brief that a ruling against Aguirre-Aguirre could affect how dozens of other countries that signed the protocol treat those fleeing persecution.
"It is cause for major concern," said Daniel Wolf, a lawyer who wrote the brief on behalf of the U.N. high commissioner. He asserted yesterday that the ruling could hurt any refugees coming out of Kosovo who may have had to engage in criminal wrongdoing to escape.
But Nadine K. Wettstein, who represented Aguirre-Aguirre, said she did not think the ruling would have such broad impact. She noted that any asylum application still begins with a determination of whether the individual faces persecution in his home country and whether any potential wrongdoing was more of a political or criminal nature.
"The Supreme Court is not giving the government a license to reject everyone's asylum claim on this basis," she said of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Aguirre-Aguirre.
Separately the justices said they would decide next term whether police have grounds to stop and question a person based on the fact that the person began running at the sight of the police.
The justices took up an appeal of an Illinois Supreme Court ruling (Illinois v. Wardlow) that police officers patrolling a high-crime area are not justified in stopping someone just because he suddenly and without provocation runs away.
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