"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?"

Of course not.

However, in the process of proposing this question, as well as a plan for providing a mechanism for assisting Southeast Asian refugees in resettling in this country, Bui Diem, the former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, either misses or avoids the critical questions that this nation must address.

No self-respecting American, steeped in the traditions of personal liberty and entrepreneurship, would deem those Southeast Asians seeking a better life to be less than worthy of consideration for immigration. They are certainly no less worthy than the millions of immigrants who have come to this nation over the decades past or the millions throughout the world who would like to come to this nation in the future.

At the same time, this does not mean that Southeast Asians are any more worthy than Mexicans seeking to immigrate for economic reasons, than Haitians fleeing the abject poverty and sometime oppression of their own country, than Cubans escaping a Communist dictatorship or, perhaps in the future, the Poles who may seek refuge in America for reasons that could become clear later.

Congress and the executive branch did make special provisions for Southeast Asians to immigrate after the Vietnam War, largely to assume responsibility for those who would be adversely affected because of their relationship to our nation and its policies during that war. If that goal has been largely accomplished--and there is considerable evidence to believe that it has--then should we continue a policy that discriminates in favor of and, in fact, encourages Southeast Asian economic migrants while we are, at the same time, instituting "interdiction at sea" to turn back the Haitian boat people? Is it appropriate to limit strictly the legal immigration of citizens of a friendly neighbor while we advertise for several times that number from Southeast Asia?

Yet even this serious question pales beside the central issue of the need for a strict ceiling on all immigration. Regardless of how worthy citizens of other nations may be for immigration, the United States can never hope to absorb all of them. Under the United Nations definition of refugee, which is similar to our own, some 16 million people worldwide are classified as refugees. This does not include those millions more who would like to emigrate but are not considered refugees by definition. Last year the United States took in 808,000 legal immigrants and refugees, a great many of them because we have no firm policies or ceilings with which to stem the tide.

In legislation introduced earlier this year, I suggested an annual limit of 350,000, a figure equal to the permanent admissions of all other nations combined. The figure is generous, far exceeding annual average legal immigration to the United States for the last 60 years, thus preserving America's tradition as a land of immigrants, a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world. Further, the legislation is flexible enough to allow the chief executive to increase that limit in an emergency, but only by borrowing against the next year's quota.

Now it might be argued that 350,000 is too many, or too few, or about the right number, but it is important to realize that establishing a limit is absolutely necessary. It would provide a framework for formulating policies that are fair both to potential immigrants throughout the world and --most important--to our own citizens.