The Post has called the Panetta amendment to the pending immigration reform legislation -- an amendment that deals with foreign workers temporarily in the United States -- a "bad" one (editorial, July 23). And so it is.

In fact it bears a striking resemblance to the ill-fated "bracero" program of the 1950s. Its purpose is the same -- to provide agricultural growers with an ensured supply of foreign labor. And the source of that labor, Mexican braceros, is the same, although we now use a more tasteful term, "guest workers," to describe them. The consequences of the proposed legislation are likely to be the same or worse.

Before embracing a new bracero program, it may be instructive to review the findings of a blue-ribbon panel appointedby the secretary of labor, at that time, James T. Mitchell, to assess the experiences under the old Mexican farm labor program. The panel, of which I was executive director, found that the first objective of the legislation -- to obtain foreign workers to meet the needs of U.S. growers had been met. In 1959 more than 400,000 braceros had been brought in. However, the second objective -- to ensure that domestic workers would not be adversely affected -- was not realized. Indeed, it was felt that the two goals were inherently contradictory.

More specifically, the panel found that despite intensive efforts by the Labor Department to prevent adverse effects, domestic workers had been displaced; users of Mexican nationals made only token efforts to obtain U.S. workers. Wage levels were lower than would have prevailed in the absence of foreign labor; studies showed that wages paid to domestic workers by growers who used braceros were significantly lower than those paid by non-users.

Now, 20 years after its demise, the consensus is that the bracero program hurt U.S. farm workers and failed to protect adequately the Mexican nationals. In the face of this, the Panetta amendment proposes to recreate a much weaker "look- alike" program that does not afford even the limited protections of the old bracero program. For Mexican nationals, these provisions included a written contract that stipulated the bracero's wages and working conditions; a minimum period of employment; free transportation, insurance and housing that met government standards, and meals at reasonable cost.

Employers using Mexican nationals were required to offer equivalent benefits to domestic workers. It was also necessary for the Labor Department to certify that there was a shortage of domestic labor and that the use of foreign labor would not adversly affect U.S. workers. The Panetta amendment is either silent on all of these counts, addresses them in general and ambiguous terms or provides for inferior conditions. By comparison, the old bracero program was a workers' utopia.

Supporters of the amendment maintain that their proposal is superior to the bracero program because it would permit the guest workers, if dissatisfied, to seek other farm employment -- or even join a union. Picture, if you can, a foreign worker, unfamiliar with our language and laws, bargaining with managers of corporate farms and growers' associations. As for joining a union, he has only to remember that entry into the United States was at the behest of his employer and that visas are available first to persons identified by name on the employer's petition. Under these circumstances, the probability of a dissatisfied "guest's" being invited back is close to zero.

Central to the implementation of a foreign worker program, is the issue of availability of domestic labor. Before the importation spigot can be turned on, a determination that U.S. workers are not available is required. But the supply of labor is not a fixed condition ("inelastic" is the economists' term). It responds to incentives and disincentives. In this context, it is not difficult for growers to see to it that the number of domestic workers is inadequate.

It is asserted that U.S workers will not accept hot, tiring field work; yet many do. Agriculture is not the only industry involving arduous, unpleasant tasks. Sanitation workers collect garbage in all kinds of weather. Foundry workers attend blast furnaces. The great equalizer is wages and conditions of employment. The Department of Labor Panel concluded that shortages of domestic labor could be eliminated if satisfactory wages and working conditions were offered and if the farm labor market operated on a more rational basis.

With the Panetta amendment, we could have an immigration bill that attempts to prevent the displacement of U.S. workers by stemming the flow of illegal aliens, while admitting a new crop of foreign guests that will crowd out employment opportunities for domestic workers and newly legalized aliens.

Basically, the amendment is but the latest in a long series of efforts by growers in the western states to obtain foreign workers -- legal or illegal -- to harvest perishable crops. When one door is shut, another is opened. If the same ingenuity were used to develop a rational farm labor market based on a domestic labor supply, there would be no need for imported labor.

Like the bracero legislation, the Panetta amendment puts the government in a no-win situation. To the degree that it is successful in providing alien labor, it jeopardizes the interests of U.S. workers. If the past is any guide, it is not difficult to predict the consequences of such a policy.