LAST YEAR, more than 100,000 people from all over the world applied for asylum in the United States. This is a special status, not necessarily leading to citizenship, that allows individuals already in this country to stay temporarily if it is determined they will suffer persecution if forced to go home. In 1989 only 6,900 of those who applied were granted asylum, while 31,500 were denied. The remaining cases are still pending. The cases are difficult because they require an adjudicator to decide whether the applicant is truly in fear of persecution or is an economic migrant who has jumped the line for a regular immigration visa.

Five years ago, a group of immigrant-aid organizations sued the U.S. government claiming that some asylum applicants -- specifically those from El Salvador and Guatemala -- were being discriminated against since only a small percentage of applicants from these countries were successful, as compared with applicants from, for example, Nicaragua, Iran or the Soviet Union. It is probably not surprising that this government is more likely to find human rights violations being committed in countries that are adversaries than it is to embarrass friendly countries by labeling them as persecutors. But the law is clear: political considerations should play no part in the determination, and each case should be judged individually.

Last week, the government agreed to settle the El Salvador-Guatemala lawsuit and will on request reconsider all 150,000 cases in which asylum has been denied. It will also take steps to encourage another estimated 350,000 aliens to apply for this benefit. The Salvadorans, in addition, have just won a legislative victory allowing them to remain in this country and work for another 18 months -- the Guatemalans were not covered by the new law -- so their position has improved dramatically in the last couple of months.

There is no guarantee that the new reviews will result in massive reversals. But they come at a time when the immigration service has inaugurated a new system for adjudicating asylum cases that promises to be more fair and uniform. In the past, the same cadre of officials decided all kinds of immigration cases, from sham marriages to asylum determination. Now, a specially trained unit of 140 will handle only asylum cases. They are expected to be experts on human rights abuses, familiar with conditions of persecution in all parts of the world and able to apply the same standards in separating economic migrants from those who fear persecution, no matter where the applicant comes from. Because of the latest settlement, Salvadorans and Guatemalans will be the major beneficiaries of this new and fairer system.