A bipartisan congressional delegation recently visited refugee camps in Thailand and concluded that the United States should do more to restrict the flow of Indochinese refugees, saying many are "economic migrants" rather than victims of persecution.

Six years after the communist takeover of Indochina, a sizable number of Indochinese, particularly Vietnamese, is still attempting to escape in spite of tremendous risks, and will likely continue to do so. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill and in the press, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments become more visible each day.

There is a feeling that too many refugees are being allowed into the United States and that the Refugee Act of 1980 is unable to deal with the complexities of the problem. The congressional delegation made clear that during consultations that begin soon it intends to recommend changes in refugee laws and to scrutinize administration proposals on the admission of refugees.

Sen. Walter Huddleston (D.-Ky.) is actively pushing for an investigation of whether any "economic migrants" are being allowed into the United States under the refugee program. If so, the senator wants the refugee program curtailed or closed down. The State Department's Panel on Refugees, led by former assistant secretary of state Marshall Green, despite its generally pro-refugee views, also contended that a proper refugee policy "must distinguish between those who fled out of a fear of persecution" and "those who seek to emigrate to ameliorate living conditions."

The distinction may be appropriate in other circumstances. But in Southeast Asia, where communist persecution is both political and economic and where the real issue if freedom, the distinction clouds the real issue. It fails to take into proper consideration that communist persecution is deeply rooted in the ideological notion of class struggle. Is being denied the right to earn a living from the fruit of one's labor any less cruel or oppressive than being denied the right to pray or to speak?

There are allegations of all sorts -- job loss, welfare burden, housing shortages -- to justify a reduction of refugee admission levels. However, as shown in a recent study by Julian L. Simons, a professor at the University of Illinois, refugees and immigrants contribute considerably more in taxes than they use in services, even during their first years here. He undertook a cost-benefit analysis that indicated that "the rate of investment return from immigrants to the citizen public is about 20 percent per annum, a remarkably good investment for any portfolio."

Legal immigrants and particularly refugees initially do make use of many public services. But Robert and Jennifer Bach, in the October 1980 Monthly Labor Review, showed that over the long run refugees will approach general levels of employment. As of January 1979, after four years of residence, 70 percent of male refugees were employed as compared with 72.8 percent of U.S. men, and 46.1 percent of female refugees, compared with 46.6 percent of U.S. women.

Congress and the administration intend to cut back on social and economic assistance programs. Since refugee programs are regarded as natural places to cut federal expenditures, then the easiest way out would be to restrict the refugee admission levels.

There is, however, a better alternative, which does not break with the traditionally human immigration policy of the United States. The time has come for a new approach shifting from reliance on social services, emergency help and short-term solutions to a permanent, long-term solution based on well-planned, community-based efforts to improve the ability of the Incochinese to compete and participate in the marketplace.

Employment orientation, job training, small business development and capital formation programs should be encouraged so that the refugees can become self-sufficient and more productive without alienating the native Americans, who, justifiably or not, may feel threatened. This new approach requires concerted efforts from both the government and the private sector to support refugee efforts.

The investment required is not great. The return is rapid and sure, as proven by the historic contribution of the immigrant population to America's growth and stability, as well as the specific record and contribution of the energectic and independent-minded Southeast Asians.