UNITED STATES immigration officials have been making prodigious efforts to stem the flow of more than a million Latin immigrants who enter illegally from Mexico each year. The evident failure of those efforts would be reason enough to consider other forms of border control. Still, it's difficult to believe that nobody foresaw the criticism that would be provoked by the fences the Immigration and Naturalization Service recently proposed to build at the two sections of the border most heavily crossed by illegal immigrants. Those fences were to consist of a 5-foot-high, razor-sharp steel grating topped by an "unclimbable" chain-link fence. The builder boasted that the grating could rip a bare foot to shreds.

Some critics of the INS undertaking said the fences were necessary but need not bristle with razor-sharp edges. Others argued that building fences would only symbolize this country's indifference to the plight of those fleeing poverty.We agree with the first point. For its part the INS apparently has conceded, belatedly, that the fences as originally designed would be unnecessarily brutal and could cause serious injury, and is now redesigning them.

But we don't entirely accept the second argument. The United States, like other countries, has a responsibility to control immigration in the interests of its own citizens. The integrity of national borders needs to be preserved. The question, of course is how to do this effectively and compassionately - and in a way that takes into account the complex social and economic forces at work on both sides of the border.

No one believes that fences or border-patrol guards (soon to be increased) will stop the flow of illegal immigrants. The Latin impulse to emigrate is powerful And the American response is be no means uniforms; while American labor resists the influx, plenty of American employers actively encourage it. It is not simply a matter of law enforcement, as the administration recognized in the proposals regarding illegal immigrants that President Carter sent to Congress last year. Whatever their flaws, these proposals tried to deal with some of the political and economic elements of the immigration problem on the U.S.-Mexican frontier. The president proposed that illegal immigrants who could prove that they had been in the United States since 1970 be made eligible to apply for citizenship in five years. He also proposed that employers who knowingly and consistently hire illegal immigrants be fined.

This package failed the first time around to muster much support. However, Congress did create a select joint committee to study revising the country's policy on immigration and refugees, and the administration apparently plans to submit its proposals again. We hope Congress will respond more positively the next time around.