The racketeering and fraud indictments that brought Imelda Marcos to New York this week send a pointed message to all dictators looking for a safe haven in the United States.

Contrary to some outward appearances, the message is not that Washington will break its word to protect them once they flee their homelands just ahead of angry rebels and seek asylum in the U.S.Rather, the message is that once political asylum is granted, its beneficiaries can't expect to use that favor as a shield protecting them from prosecution for crimes committed within America's borders.

This distinction must be kept in mind if the U.S. is to keep using the promise of sanctuary as a lure to pry slipping dictators from power in order to curtail repression and bloodshed in their homelands.

In the case at hand, the U.S. kept its part of the bargain and acted as a good host - until the silverware started disappearing. But former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who is ailing in Hawaii, and former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos evidently did not.

The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that the Marcoses diverted more than $100 million of Philippine government funds and $165 million in fraudulent U.S. bank loans to assemble a New York real estate empire.

Even those sizable sums are small change compared to the $10 billion that Marcos is thought to have stolen from his impoverished country. Among the victims of such theft are the American taxpayers, who have been pouring foreign aid into the Philippines to help the people, not enrich the Marcoses.

Ferdinand Marcos also abused America's hospitality by using his Hawaiian sanctuary to make thwarted plots to invade the Philippines and oust the Aquino government though it is supported by the Filipino people and has good relations with Washington.

If the Marcoses want to avoid spending the rest of their lives in jail, their course is clear: Return not only the money allegedly bilked from U.S. banks, but also the much more massive sums looted from the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the lesson should be clear: Political sanctuary is not a license to steal or plot. By prosecuting the Marcoses, the U.S. is serving both justice and foreign policy.