WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that foreigners who have fled to America to avoid being forced to join in an effort to overthrow the government back home are not entitled to ask to stay in the United States as refugees.
The court, dividing 6-3, apparently cleared the way for the return to Guatemala of a young man who refused to join a guerrilla movement there and now fears that his life is in danger because of that.
Five years ago, when Jairo Jonathan Elias-Zacarias was 18, two masked men carrying machine guns came to his home and tried -- without success -- to persuade him to join anti-government guerrilla forces, the man says. They told him, he said later, to "think it over well," and that they would come back.
Afraid, the youth fled Guatemala two months later, and that summer entered the United States as an illegal alien. He was threatened with deportation but applied for asylum as a refugee who feared persecution if sent home.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled against him, and his case wound up in court.
The majority declared yesterday that Mr. Elias-Zacarias had not proved that he was eligible to be classified as a "refugee" because he had not proved that his refusal to join the guerrillas was due to a "political motive." Thus, it concluded, he could not show he had a genuine fear of persecution for his political views.
Even if the guerrillas themselves might have had political reasons for trying to gather recruits for their efforts, the court said in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, that was beside the point.
It is not the political views of those who might persecute someone that counts in determining whether an illegal alien faced potential harm at home, the majority said. The issue is whether that alien faces persecution for the political views he holds.
The dissenting justices, in an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, said the court majority was giving only a "grudging" interpretation to the law on asylum.