THERE IS a specter haunting the debate over illegal immigration, and his name is George Orwell. It is widely recognized, most recently by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, that any effective strategy to curb illegal immigration into the United States must focus on developing some means of distinguishing accurately between alien workers and legal residents. But the effort has stalled on the assertion that any form of national identity system would dangerously impair an entire series of privacy rights now enjoyed by Americans.

If the United States adopts a "universal identifier" while reforming its immigration laws, critics charge, the computerized record-keeping apparatus required to ensure its accuracy would usher in Mr. Orwell's totalitarian nightmare -- 1984. In this view, the cards would be used eventually as credit and police checks and, in other unspecified ways, would be perverted beyond their avowed purpose of verifying the employment eligibility of resident aliens.Worst-case arguments conjure up visions of all Americans being forced to produce the cards before registering at hotels, crossing state lines or for other abusive purposes unimagined today. Meanwhile, proposals to limit cards to aliens are denounced as both an assault on privacy and a blatant act of discrimination against the large number of Latins and Carribbean blacks among the illegal population.

The threat to privacy rights posed by a national identity card is real and is worthy of close scrutiny. But opponents have exaggerated it grossly. Even today, virtually every American uses daily a number of quasi-national (though not universal) identifiers, public and private: Social Security cards, drivers' licenses, Medicare and Medicaid numbers, armed forces identity cards and the familiar credit cards. A veritable army of government and private agencies collates and jostles these identifiers within their computer data banks constantly, using and abusing the data for purposes both benign and malevolent. Still, despite the warnings of civil libertarians, we have yet to fulfill our supposed rendezvous with an Orwellian destiny.

Why the fuss, then, about a more systematic identifier designed solely to deal with illegal immigration? The rights of illegals (including their privacy) would probably be strengthened through a national identity card system. The federal government would find it possible not only to identify provable abuses by employers or local authorities but also extend legal protection and social services to workers whose presence in the United States had been legitimized by the new cards.

The system's main benefit, though, would be to allow the government to determine precisely and promptly the legal status of millions of alien workers who have inundated low-wage American labor markets. No humane and rational immigration policy stands a chance of success unless we reduce the currently uncontrollable rate of illegal entry.

Congress, while devising a national identity card system, should provide elaborate safeguards, possibly through amendments to the 1974 Privacy Act. Whether the identifier should be a forgery-proof Social Security card, a phone-in data bank, a new work identity card or some other proposed mechanisms remains to be determined. Only through adopting such a system, however, can Americans reassert the primacy of lawful entry into this country. Endless and inappropriate evocations of George Orwell will not make the problem go away.