HOW SHOULD the federal government deal with all the Cubans and Haitians who have just arrived in the United States? Can government treat them humanely without utterly undermining immigration law that has compelled thousands of people to wait years to be admitted to the United States -- even people who are to be reunited with their families? The administration's proposed answer was announced last week: the Cubans and Haitians are to be considered a class apart -- not quite refugees and not quite regular immigrants, but rather something called "Cuban and Haitian entrants."

Under this dispensation the federal government would pay resettlement costs and initial health screening and education costs: in all, $385 million between now and October. This would resemble payments for refugees. The difference would be in the treatment of this group once it was settled. The administration's proposal assumes that the "entrants" will assimilate very quickly into American society, and that therefore the three-year federal responsibility for welfare and social program costs, which is standard under the new refugee act, should not apply.

Instead, the administration wants to make them eligible -- on the same basis as other residents, citizen or not, for federally subsidized social programs. It would also propose new legislation to provide a 75 percent federal reimbursement for one year only for services and welfare programs that ordinarily are paid for by state and local governments. That is 25 percent less than these governments would normally get, since under the refugee act the federal government pays all the state and local costs for three years.

But making the states pay part of the cost of services to this group isn't really fair. These new entrants, like other (one hesitates to use the word) "refugees," do bear a certain federal imprimatur. Even though the special status of Cubans was eliminated with the refugee act, it cannot be pretended that the arrival on our shores of all these people was unconnected to foreign policy. The costs associated with receiving refugees are traditionally considered federal costs, and they are generally quite short-lived. If, as the administration suggests, costs will be low, then the federal Treasury will benefit. If they turn out to be higher than expected, the burden should not be shifted to the states and localities.