There is only one real issue in the debate over our devastating immigration problem: will the nation at last summon the will to take the steps necessary to solve it? Or will the neglect of decades continue, posing the possibility that the problem quite soon will be beyond reasonable hope of correction?

The Reagan administration is determined to have enacted into law an immigration reform program that is fair, effective and humane. But from some quarters the program is encountering the same reaction that in prior years led to reform efforts' being quibbled to death.

These are the voices of the parochial and special interests, not those of the American people. They are the voices of those who benefit from the failure of past policies and the non-enforcement of present law, not the voices of those who bear the burden of failed policies and who rightfully ask that the federal government act now to regain control of our borders.

We must end the paralysis that permits forces and powers outside our borders to be masters of our fate. The president's immigration program addresses four basic needs:

To deter illegal immigration across our expansive land borders and direct it into legal channels.

To control the arrival of illegal aliens by sea.

To curtail illegal immigration by reforming the legal immigration process.

To control and reduce the costs of admitting refugees and those seeking asylum.

Most illegal aliens are drawn here by the lure of easily available jobs. The cornerstone of our program is a proposal for a law forbidding employers knowingly to hire illegal aliens. This is the only remaining credible enforcement measure we have. Job applicants would have to show certain kinds of identification evidencing their legal status. Employers who rely on this evidence of legal residence would have a defense under the statute.

Some critics contend the program cannot work without some new form of counterfeit-proof identification. But we believe that our proposal will work, the employers will support and obey the law, and no unfair burdens will be placed on any legal residents.

The burden of proof is on those who would create a national identity card, on those who would spend billions of dollars in a likely fruitless effort to find a card that cannot be counterfeited, to show that the steps proposed by the administration will not effectively reduce illegal immigration.

Others criticize the administration's proposed experiment in admitting a moderate number of temporary foreign workers to states that determine there are jobs for which enough American workers are not available. These critics ignore the fact that there are serious localized labor needs and that there are safeguards built into the proposal to protect American workers. The reality is that there is already a massive illegal foreign workers program. The purpose of the administration's proposal is to reduce and regulate this flow, channeling limited numbers of foreign workers into jobs where they are needed.

The terms of the administration proposals to allow most undocumented aliens who have been here for some time to trade illegal for legal status also have been criticized. The suggestion has been made that many or most might remain underground.

It is extraordinary to suggest that illegal aliens would somehow not want to end the constant nightmare fear of discovery and deportation. The administration proposes to give legal status to illegal aliens who were here before January 1, 1980. Those who have been here 10 years when the programs begins may apply at once for permanent status; others will have to wait until they have been here for a like period. Because these people came to the United States illegally, and because we do not want to encourage others to do likewise, the proposal is, I think, fair, generous and necessary.

These critics bring to mind a passage from "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," in which Samuel Eliot Morison described the Europe of 1492, shortly before the voyage of Christopher Columbus, that opened the age of immigration.

"Most men," Morison wrote, "felt exceedingly gloomy about the future."

That seems to be the hallmark of many critics today, as if they feel that nothing can be done--or perhaps, that nothing should be done.

Should we follow their direction? Or should we heed the words of Columbus?

Morison noted that in setting off on his voyage into the unknown, Columbus recorded in his journal: "Above all it is very important that I forget sleep and labor much . . . because it is necessary. . . . " Likewise, this nation now must labor much. Immigration reform, as proposed by the president, is essential.