The Select Commission on Immigration yesterday voted to recommend civil and criminal penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens.

Meeting behind closed doors, the commission, headed by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, failed to reach agreement on a controversial proposal by its staff that all persons in the United States be required to obtain worker identification cards from the government in order to prove that they are in the country legally and entitled to work.

The worker identification card proposal was denounced before the meeting began by three commission members, Sen Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Patricia Roberts Harris.

"I am against identity cards absolutely and unalterably," said Harris. "It is a historic reversal of a quality of independence and of lack of central government control of individual activities." Harris said the possiblities for government prying and wrongful use were too great to warrant use of worker identification cards merely to help curb illegal immigration.

Under existing law it is not illegal for an employer to hire an illegal immigrant. Under the commission's tentative proposal, a business would be subject to fines and criminal penalties for its officers if it could be shown that there was "a pattern and practice" of hiring illegal aliens.

One of the commission's chief objectives was to recommend policies to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants, which may be as high as 300,000 per year. Current estimates are that there are between 3.6 million and 6 million illegals residing in the United States, about three-fifths of them Hispanic, mostly from Mexico.

Since most of these immigrants come to seek jobs, the commission reasoned that making it more difficult for an unscrupulous employer to hire them would help cut off the flow. After adopting in broad principle the recommendation of penalites for such employers, the commission also tentatively recommended that Congress move to legalize the status of some illegal aliens already in this country.

The panel, set up by law two years ago to evaluate immigration laws and problems, consists of eight members of Congress, four Cabinet members and four citizens appointed by the president. It expects to make its final report to the president and Congress in March.