A WEEK AGO the administration announced it was moving 800 Haitian boat people from an overcrowded Miami detention facility, in a state that feels much put upon in the matter of refugees, to Puerto Rico, Bainbridge, Md., had just found several reasons to turn these and other detained illegals away. In the weekend following, however, 451 more Haitians put ashore. Meanwhile, an injunction keeps the Puerto Rican facility closed.

This is the Haitian refugee problem. Actually, they are not refugees. The law reserves taht category for alliens with a "well-founded fear" of political persecution upon return home. In a dozen recent cases, Haitians have been found to be people seeking economic opportunity. That requires them to go home and get in a years-long line for a visa. It is, of course, the uncertainty, or negative certainty, of that process in the first place that has led perhaps tens of thousands of poor, illiterate Creole-speaking Haitians to take to sea in the last few years.

Jimmy Carter, unwilling to distinguish between equally pitiable Cubans and Haitians arriving simultaneously, guaranteed the 7,200 (counted) who arrived before last october against deportation; otherwise their status is in limbo. Almost all of the several thousand Haitians coming since have successfully used the protections of the American legal system to resist deportation, though their permanent status, too, is in limbo. Fresh arrivals are stacking up in limbo. Fresh arrivals are stacking up in south Florida detention centers.

The administration, in its immigration review, is said to be contemplating interdicting Haitian boats at sea, holding shipboard hearings, and turning those without proper papers or detaining them when they hit the beach. This is an extreme remedy, though it might seem less so if it were done on land. The image of a stern white Uncle Sam pushing black people back to misery, on grounds that they were economic not political refugees, would take wing. Also, it could affect efforts to get Asian nations to take Indochinese refugees.

Yet the law is the law. The reason immigration is of such concern now is not merely hat illegals your in but that citizens finally recognize they have no real control over a basic process. Some say that, if there were a system, of worker identity cards and employer sanctions, the word would filter back to Haiti that it doesn't pay to sneak in. There should be such a system but many Haitians would doubtless try anyway. They are especially desperate. Is there a case for rewarding special desperation? Like everyone else, if they come, they should come on American terms.