THERE IS NOW every indication that the House of Representatives will act on the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1982 during the coming week. I trust that will be the case, for if this Congress fails to complete work on this legislation, the country could pay a heavy price.

The new immigration bill that hangs in the balance represents years of hard work, all of which will go up in vapor if the lame-duck session ends without enacting it. But there is much more at stake than that: this is one of those moments when we can accurately predict the consequences of inaction, and they are all negative. If we do fail this time, we'll look back years hence and say, "How did we come to miss that opportunity?"

One could easily catalogue what will happen should we fail to take the reasonable steps contained in this legislation. Pressures on Congress will continue to mount for more enforcement, more border patrol personnel, more immigration investigators. We shall see a change in public attitudes toward immigrants and refugees. We shall see public support for our fine immigration and refugee programs eroding as American citizens perceive that their short-term interests are being threatened by the continued uncontrolled numbers of legal and illegal immigrants competing for jobs and scarce resources.

We might well then see all of the latent nativism, xenophobia, racism and scapegoating come fully to the surface and begin to tragically and profoundly influence public policy. We can expect increased public pressure for stricter enforcement of the existing immigration laws; increased raids upon the workplaces; the prospect of continued long-term detention, and the possibility of mass deportations.

Anyone who considers this scenario far-fetched should visit south Florida to experience the degree of tension evident among citizens, refugees, immigrants and public officials in that heavily affected part of our nation. South Florida ought to be a "first alert" for the entire country.

President Ford was the first to propose the reforms contained in the '82 bill. President Carter followed vigorously on and then in 1981 came the recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (on which I served), the recommendations of the attorney general's task force on immigration reform, and finally the proposals of President Reagan.

Then, in the Senate alone 335 persons testified during 30 days of hearings and consultations conducted by the immigration subcommittee and the Judiciary Committee. On Aug. 17 the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 80-19. It would be keenly disappointing if this bill, after extraordinary work effort and compromise by thoughtful citizens and members of Congress was allowed to perish in the final days of this lame-duck session.

The world is watching Capitol Hill; if we fail, that news will be flashed to prospective immigrants and refugees all over the globe. The message will be that it is "business as usual" in America -- that the nation remains wide open to illegal immigration.

The tough struggle for successful immigration reform has pitted short- term special interests against the long-term national interest. In the end, the contest may boil down to this: Have the employers of the United States become so dependent upon a supply of cheap, docile, illegal labor that they cannot continue in business without it? Or is this government to have authority over who enters its borders? Before we succumb to the varied economic pressures that would protect jobs for illegal aliens, should we not consider that jobs must first be protected for U.S. citizens? It is a question that I hoped would not be presented in the debate. But it is real.

Few would have conceived that in a matter of a few years, America would have become a country of mass first asylum. Four years ago, 4,000 asylum petition claims were pending. Today there are more than 105,000. These are people who have made their way to the shores of this country to claim refugee status.

The word has spread through the world that once one reaches American soil, a person becomes entitled to rights that were never available to that person while applying for refugee status abroad. Aliens' ability to cross our borders freely in order to claim these "rights" has overloaded our asylum adjudication system, causing it to collapse under its own ponderous weight.

The pending legislation, known as the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, cannot solve the entire problem, but it puts us on the path toward meeting one of the very first duties of a sovereign nation -- control of its borders. It will provide for fair and expeditious asylum adjudication, and it will accomplish reasonable reforms to deter illegal immigration. This legislation is only the first step toward reforming overall immigration and refugee policy by regaining control of legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.