WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled today that the government should grant asylum to illegal aliens who have "a well-founded fear" they will be persecuted if forced to return to their homeland.
By a 6-3 vote, the justices rejected a Reagan Administration appeal in the case of a Nicaraguan woman living in Nevada who says the Sandinistas would persecute her if she goes back to her native country.
The court in 1984 allowed the government to deport illegal aliens who fail to show a clear probability that they will be persecuted in their homeland.
The justices said then that when Congress amended the immigration laws in 1980, it did not intend to make it easier for aliens facing deportation to remain in the United States.
But today the court allowed more lenient treatment for those seeking asylum--which is covered by a different provision of the law than deportation.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court, said "a well-founded fear" of persecution is easier for illegal aliens to demonstrate than "a clear probability" that persecution will occur.
"To show a well-founded fear of persecution an alien need not prove that it is more likely than not that he or she will be persecuted in his or her home country," Stevens said. "It is clear that Congress did not intend to restrict eligibility for (asylum) to those who could prove that it is more likely than not that they will be persecuted if deported."
Today's ruling is a victory for Luz Marina Cardoza-Fonseca, who came to this country from Nicaragua in 1979 and remained in the San Francisco area, overstaying her visa. She since has moved to Nevada.
Cardoza-Fonseca, 38, conceded in 1981 that she could be deported lawfully. But she applied for asylum on the ground that the Sandinista regime would retaliate against her because her brother, a former ally of the Sandinistas, had denounced them and fled to the United States.
Sister Not Persecuted
Immigration officials said she failed to show a clear probability she would be persecuted in Nicaragua. They noted that she has a sister living there who has not been persecuted.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1985 that it is only necessary for someone seeking asylum to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution, which it said is easier to prove than a clear probability.
The appeals court ordered the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals to hold further hearings to determine whether Cardoza-Fonseca in fact has a well-founded fear of persecution.
The Reagan Administration, in appealing to the Supreme Court, said it could be forced to reopen thousands of cases in which asylum has been denied. In addition, the Administration said, there are about 11,000 new asylum cases each year.
In their dissent, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White and Lewis F. Powell said the immigration appeals board reasonably concluded that there is no practical distinction between the standards to be applied in deportation and asylum cases.