WILL WALTER POLOVCHAK, the 15-year-old would-be political refugee in Chicago, be sent back behind the Iron Curtain against his will? The notion that such a result is even discussed by rational men and women infuriates some Americans. Stressing our history as a land of refuge that has welcomed the persecuted, many would argue that any individual with a justified fear of persecution--particularly in the Soviet Union--ought to be allowed to stay. Others question whether a child should be able make such a fateful decision against the wishes of his parents.

Last week, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois affirmed a lower court in holding that Walter should never have been removed from his parents' custody when he sought asylum at the age of 12. The parents were immigrants from the Ukraine who were disappointed with life in this country and decided to return to their homeland. Walter and his sister, Natalie, wanted to stay. This was no problem for Natalie, who was 17 at the time, but in order to preserve Walter's claim, juvenile officials removed him from his parents' custody and made him a ward of the state. It is that decision that an appellate court, and recently the highest court of the state, have reversed.

Most juvenile law experts would agree that the conditions necessary to justify removing a child from parental custody were not present in this case. But whether this will have any effect at all on Walter's fate is yet to be seen.

The more fundamental question--whether Walter should be allowed to stay in this country--is being decided in the federal courts, and they are moving with all deliberate lassitude. The boy has been granted "religious asylum"--he is a Baptist and fears persecution in the Soviet Union--by the U.S. government. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has issued an order forbidding his departure from the United States against his will. His parents are back in the Ukraine, but even if they returned to reestablish custody, the asylum question remains to be settled.

Time is on Walter's side. The longer he is here, and the closer to adulthood, the less likely the courts would force him to return to his parents. The question he and they (and the two governments) will more probably address is whether visits of some kind will be possible--or whether the price of Walter Polovchak's decision and that of his parents will mean the loss of their family connection.