How serious is the Reagan administration in its attacks on Central American refugees?

Four years ago, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was greeting the famished and dying boat people of Haiti by carting them directly from the beaches of South Florida to a prison on the edge of an Everglades swamp. Similar Reagan-style compassion is now being directed at refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as church groups giving them sanctuary.

In mid-January, the INS in several cities arrested more than 50 refugees as illegal aliens. In Phoenix, federal grand jury indictments were brought against 16 sanctuary workers for being smugglers of people on the run from the violence in Central America. Priests, nuns and ministers were included.

The refugees have not been tourists migrating north with the birds. For the fourth consecutive year, El Salvador and Guatemala have been singled out as the worst human rights violators by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based research group. More than 10,000 noncombatants were killed by political violence in both countries in 1983.

No chances were taken by the Reagan administration in tracking down the penniless refugees and their allies who provide sanctuary. Undercover informants, early morning raids, the ransacking of nuns' living quarters and the infiltration of meetings were among the techniques of enforcing the immigration law.

To be sure that not a sinister word would be left out of the record, government sneaks who sat in on the sanctuary meetings strapped tape recorders to their hides. Of these body bugs, the Rev. John Fife of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who was one of those arrested, said: "We expect that to happen in Russia, Eastern Europe and in totalitarian countries."

The arrests of Central American refugees and the sanctuary workers pits church against state in what promises to be a long legal debate. It is just as well that this new round of persecution of Salvadorans and Guatemalans is climaxing now. As the arguments of the Reagan administration grow weaker -- that the refugees have no right to asylum because they have no reason to fear persecution at home -- the call to conscience by the sanctuary movement grows stronger.

More than 160 congregations currently are defying the Reagan administration by taking in refugees. Churches with past commitments to Central America see the offering of sanctuary as a logical and moral extension of their earlier fieldwork.

Massive civil disobedience by the nonviolent is impressive when led by a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, but the sanctuary movement has no single leader out front. Each city -- from Seattle and Phoenix to Philadelphia and Boston -- has men and women who see the giving of sanctuary as the least that can be done and the Reagan policy in Central America as the worst that has been done.

The INS argues that the church groups are acting outside the law, while the church groups reply that they are only outside the administration's interpretation of the law. Some new information suggests who's right. The American Civil Liberties Union political asylum project reports that less than 3 percent of more than 13,000 Salvadoran asylum requests were granted in 1984. The overall approval rate for nationalities is about 20 percent.

Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights who expends great energy attacking human rights groups that displease him, writes that, "We must insist on the distinction between refugees who face persecution and migrants who leave their homes to seek better lives." Illegal Salvadorans, he believes, are in the second group.

According to Abrams' thinking, life in El Salvador, where 50,000 civilians have been slain in the last five years, is a persecution-free existence. He says that "El Salvador is not ruled by a repressive military clique." With every Salvadoran valley coursed by a river of blood, what has been ruling the country?

Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) introduced legislation last week that would grant the refugees a two-year stay of deportation. During this time, the General Accounting Office would investigate the realities in Central America and the asylum rights of its people. Presumably, the GAO will have better information than the kind we now have from INS sneaks and their tape recorders. The promise of the Moakley bill is that although it can't guarantee human rights in Central America, it can offer some modest legal rights here.