Behind the Paper Curtain: Asylum Policy Versus Asylum Practice


President Nixon has reemphasized the U.S. commitment to the provision of asylum for refugees and directed appropriate departments and agencies of the U.S. Government under the coordination of the Department of State, to take steps to bring to every echelon of the U.S. Government which could possibly be involved with persons seeking asylum a sense of the depth and urgency of our commitment.

On November 23, 1970, as the American Coast Guard cutter Vigilant moored alongside a Soviet fishing trawler in American waters off Massachusetts, Simas Kudirka, a Lithuanian seaman, leapt from the Russian vessel to the deck of the Vigilant and requested political asylum in the United States.Uncertain of proper procedure, the captain of the cutter telephoned Boston headquarters for instructions. Admiral William Ellis replied, “Return the defector,” explaining that his decision was “in the interest of not fouling up any of our arrangements as far as the fishing situation is concerned.” The Admiral’s command was immediately carried out. Five Russians were allowed to board the American vessel, where they beat Kudirka into submission and then re-turned him to the Soviet trawler in the Vigilant’s motor launch, piloted by anAmerican officer.

Not surprisingly, the image of the United States as a haven for the oppressed-and particularly for those fleeing communism-was sullied by the Kudirka affair. The public was outraged, since the Russians were known to impose Draconian penalties against defectors. There was speculation that our callous treatment of Kudirka might be part of the price of detente and that our government was treating refugees as pawns in the game of international politics.

The Administration moved quickly to allay such suspicions, reassuringCongress and the American public that the Kudirka affair was an “aberration,”an administrative “snafu” which would never happen again. Deputy UnderSecretary of State for Administration William Macomber stressed that “the historic role America has played as a refuge for the oppressed, from the very beginning of our tradition, is still our role.” Other Administration officials insisted that the United States did not have, nor had it ever had, a policy of returning refugees to countries where they would be persecuted and that theUnited States policy on political asylum was one of concern for all victims of political persecution, regardless of American relations with the regimes from which the refugees were fleeing. Human lives, insisted the administration, were not being sacrificed for detente or any other facet of our foreign policy. According to State Department officials, the criteria which successful applicants for asylum must meet are applied evenhandedly to those who seek asylum from any country on the globe: they must be fleeing from a repressive regime and demonstrate a “well-founded fear” that political, religious, or racial persecution would face them upon return.

The State Department’s explanation of the Kudirka incident in particular and of American asylum policy in general apparently satisfied most critics, and the subject was soon forgotten. But although the official explanation was accurate enough in some respects, it was quite misleading in others. Spokesmen for the State Department presented a strong case that government policy on granting asylum is uniformly just and humane, but an examination of U.S. asylum practice in cases other than the Kudirka affair raises strong doubts.

The Kudirka incident was indeed an “aberration,” not because the seaman was callously returned to a totalitarian regime, but because he was returned to a communist regime. In an interview, Louis Wiesner, director of the State Department’s Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs (ORM), noted with accuracy: “Historically, we have granted asylum or have failed to return people to any communist regime except Yugoslavia.” Humanitarian treatment of refugees from communist countries has continued to the present, and asylum re-quests are rarely denied. A State Department spokesman recently confirmed that the pattern of grants and denials has continued to be present. Refugees from Iran, Chile, Haiti, the Philippines, and other repressive noncommunist governments are not welcomed with open arms in this country. Indeed, gaining asylum in the United States from dictatorships friendly to the United States is much more difficult than gaining asylum from communist countries. This pattern of discrimination demands close scrutiny of the “depth and urgency of our commitment” to humanitarian asylum practice. President Carter’s avowed con-cern for human rights and his appointment of a more liberal Immigration Commissioner, Leonel Castillo, offer some hope for the development of a more evenhanded asylum program than is revealed by our treatment of refugees to date.

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