Reader Rules More Information Needed in Story on Supreme Court Case

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 24, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Reader Rules More Information Needed in Story on Supreme Court Case


The Washington Times "report" on the Supreme Court's May 3 decision to allow the deportation of a student protester misleads your readers to believe that our highest court pointedly rebuffed the United Nations ("U.S. law trumps U.N. in political-asylum case," May 4).

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The court repeated its long-held view that one of Congress' primary purposes in passing the 1980 Refugee Act was to implement the principles agreed to in the U.N. refugee treaty that the United States signed more than 30 years ago.

The United States helped formulate the treaty following the Holocaust to ensure that people who fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinions could escape from their persecutors.

More than 130 countries have signed this treaty. To help these governments apply the terms of the treaty, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the expert agency on refugees, issued a Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status. This was done at the request of the UNHCR Executive Committee, where the United States is a key player.

Many countries find this advice helpful in deciding who is a refugee. The Supreme Court itself has noted that the handbook provides significant guidance in understanding refugee law, while recognizing that it does not have the force of law. The handbook, as the court observed, makes clear that sovereign states have the obligation to decide who is a refugee.

What was disputed in this case was how to interpret three words in the Refugee Act, which Congress incorporated from the refugee treaty: "serious nonpolitical crime." Little guidance exists in the law on this. Not surprisingly, a difference of opinion exists as to what these words mean. Here we come to the essence of this case, which your article failed to report.

The U.S. government has different interpretations of these words. The Department of Justice's immigration judge who heard the testimony of the student protester decided in a lengthy opinion that the student did not commit a "serious nonpolitical crime." The Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reviewed the case and interpreted the phrase differently - in one short paragraph of analysis - determining that the student did commit a "serious nonpolitical crime.

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Reader Rules More Information Needed in Story on Supreme Court Case
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