Arthur Helton's piece on the new immigration law endorsing the creation of a "temporary safe haven for alien refugees" {op-ed, Aug. 19} ignored the most important reason for employer sanctions. Consequently, implementation of his proposal would only worsen the principal problem the new law is intended to address: unemployment among U.S. citizens and legal residents.

The driving force behind the employer sanctions provision in the Simpson-Rodino Act was the need to eliminate an underground work force that was taking jobs from American workers. Mr. Helton's proposal to provide economic opportunities for temporary refugees would create a new above-ground work force that not only would depress wage rates and bring more workers into the market to compete with citizens for jobs but also would divert the bulk of its earnings out of the country.

The real gaps in U.S. immigration law are not related to the lack of employment opportunities for temporary refugees, but to both the lack of a skills requirement for immigrants and the absence of an annual limit on the number of immigrants from all sources. We have allowed our job market to be flooded by new arrivals who receive admission preference because of their relationship to American citizens and legal residents. This nepotistic immigration policy places bloodline above skill in determining who is admitted to the United States and ignores the demographic impact of unlimited family reunification, or "chain migration." Consequently, there already is a surplus of workers seeking the same jobs that would be sought by "temporary refugees."

The solution to the dilemma identified by Mr. Helton is not to add more people to the work force; it is to revamp our immigration laws to give admissions priority to the skills possessed by applicants, not to their family trees. Sen. Edward Kennedy has introduced legislation that would eliminate the "fifth preference" (married brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens), the most abusive of the nepotistic provisions, but his bill does not go far enough. An emphasis on skills, capital investment and other economy-building criteria is essential, together with a rational, flexible limit on the number of admissions.

With such a structure in place, the United States would be well situated to consider the humanitarian measures proposed by Mr. Helton.

M. RUPERT CUTLER Washington