Michael Barone's recent article {Outlook, Oct. 18} -- in which he stated that "immigration is as American as apple pie" -- made a number of excellent points. We need to be reminded that we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. We can be proud of the melting pot process. We no longer conform to Anglo-Saxon norms, but to American norms.

Unfortunately, Mr. Barone commits the often repeated error of romanticizing the entire immigration process. All immigrants are not "skilled people ready to move upward in the world's most advanced economy." Witness the recent arrests of certain Jamaicans on drug-selling charges. It is patently wrong to state that no group has "proved unassimilable." Witness blacks, Mexicans, native Americans and most Asian groups. The majority Anglo population has deliberately raised a wall of cultural separatism against such groups.

Mr. Barone neglects the fact that much of the success in the assimilation of white ethnic groups into mainstream society can be attributed to the restrictive legislation of the 1920s. By limiting the number of entries, the second generation was better able to adapt to the American scene. Such a process would have been extremely difficult if the numbers coming in every year kept increasing.

The situation surrounding immigration in the United States today is vastly different from that described by Mr. Barone. The number of immigrants is larger now than at any time since the first decade of this century, when some 90 percent of all immigrants came from Europe. Today, close to 90 percent come from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. The earlier movement was multi-ethnic but overwhelmingly of white persons; the current movement consists primarily of nonwhite persons. Assimilating Asians, blacks and Hispanics will be far more formidable than assimilating Italians, Greeks and Poles.

In a population of 240 million, a mere 1 million immigrants may seem inconsequential. However, because of the nation's very low fertility rate, all population growth will soon come from immigration. Within 20 years, California and Texas will no longer have majority populations. Anglos, Hispanics, blacks and Asians will be minorities, if fertility remains low and immigration remains high.

The nation faces some striking challenges from its changing racial composition. Rather than strive for some elusive assimilation, we would be better served if immigration levels were drastically reduced and illegal immigration were ended. This would allow our newest immigrants to become better adapted. And we should alter immigration legislation so as to emphasize our occupational needs rather than family reunification.

Given these shifts in selection, we should make every effort to ensure that the newcomers become integrated into this pluralistic society. Our newest immigrants should exhibit a strong desire to become Americans and to join with us as we gradually become the first major nation without any racial majority.

It is time to go beyond the romantic illusions of past immigration and face up to some serious questions about the future. What are we? What do we want to become in the 21st century? The demographic shifts currently taking place guarantee a very different United States in the 21st century. It is time to address the issues that will emanate from these shifts.

LEON F. BOUVIER Honolulu The writer, a former vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, is an adjunct professor of sociology at Old Dominion University.