The first refugees to arrive in America came ashore at Plymouth in 1620. The Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, were not like their fellow Englishmen who had settled in Jamestown 13 years earlier. The first Virginians were well established, secure, even prominent in their homeland but came to the New World seeking economic opportunity. Both kinds of settlers found what they were looking for, as did millions of others seeking political freedom or economic opportunity who came in a virtually unrestricted stream for another 300 years.

After World War I, numerical quotas for immigrants were adopted, but no special category was provided for those fleeing from persecution. After World War II, however, it became clear that Americans wanted to assume a special obligation for persons who were victims of persecution, and we decided to admit such refugees in numbers over and above the quota for regular immigrants. In the '40s, we took in hundreds of thousands of persons who had been displaced by the war or who had fled their communist homelands. After the Vietnam War, we assumed responsibility--which was certainly ours-- to accept and resettle half a million Indochinese. More recently, Congress has been asked to grant special asylum to 125,000 Cubans and Haitians who arrived on our shores in 1980.

In 1980, Congress enacted legislation to create a framework for the admission of refugees that would be both fair and flexible. A definition of "refugee" was adopted: a person "who is unable or unwilling . . . to return to his country because of persecution or a well founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, member mship in a particular social group, or political opinion." Fifty thousand such persons can be admitted each year, and, if he believes it is necessary, the president can admit an unlimited additional number as long as he notifies Congress. Last year, that number rose to 217,000.

Because our quota for regular immigrants fills up rapidly, more and more would-be Americans are claiming refugee status and asking for admission in that category. Because admissions for refugees are virtually unlimited, it is easy to see why this status is desirable. It is terribly difficult, however, to put people in simple categories. Most immigrants move for a combination of reasons, as so many of our ancestors did. Catholics were not happy in British Ireland, Jews suffered discrimination in Eastern Europe and Huguenots in Catholic France--but they also came because they wanted a better life, economically. One would be hard pressed to call them either refugees from persecution or economic immigrants since they were both.

This is the dilemma faced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in sorting out the demands of over 100,000 Haitians, Ethiopians, Nicaraguans and others who have claimed asylum--refugee status--in this country. The test is not whether their country of origin is less than a perfect democracy, but whether each applicant, as an individual, would suffer persecution if he returned to his homeland. Unless a personal jeopardy can be demonstrated, the applicant is considered an ordinary immigrant and must wait at the end of a very long line.

The magnitude of this problem increases daily. War in Central America has brought tens of thousands to the United States. A comparable number of Haitians has already reached our shores, and the government estimates that another 40,000 are in the Bahamas waiting to immigrate if their compatriots are granted refugee status. The State of Florida, in particular, is hard pressed to care for these aliens, 70 percent of whom are now receiving some form of welfare from state and federal governments.

The burning desire of so many refugees and immigrants to come to this country is a tribute. They come not simply because we are prosperous, but also because we are free. The sad fact is that we are no longer able to follow our humanitarian instincts and accept, as we did for so many years, anyone who wants to come. Because of economic conditions and the need to maintain social and political stability, we must regulate the flow and make hard choices about who will be admitted. As a result, distinguishing real refugees from the hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people who simply want a chance in this country is becoming the most iddifcult and painful choice of all. to follow our humanitarian instincts and accept, as we did for so many years, anyone who wants to come. Because of economic conditions and the need to maintain social and political stability, we must regulate the flow and make hard choices about who will be admitted. As a result, distinguishing real refugees from the hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people who simply want a chance in this country is becoming the most iddifcult and painful choice of all.