To hear the State Department tell it, Emelina Panameno de Garcia keeps bad company. Violent, terroristic company, in fact. A citizen of El Salvador and a survivor of rapes and torture by an eight-member death squad, she is a nurse, a mother of eight and a member of CO-MADRES. This is the respected Salvadoran human-rights group that does everything from searching for the disappeared to demanding the release of political prisoners.

CO-MADRES stands for the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Murdered of El Salvador. It was formed in 1977. If its human-rights values had been honored these past seven years at least 40,000 Salvadorans would not have been murdered by their government or the death squads.

De Garcia spoke at Georgetown University Nov. 20 when she accepted on behalf of the CO-MADRES the first RobAward. The date would have been Kennedy's 59th birthday. Four empty chairs were on stage. They would have been occupied by four other CO-MADRES women who had been invited by the Kennedy family to receive the award. But the State Department, vigilant for America's security lest anyone as dangerous as a Salvadoran human-rights worker be allowed into the country, denied the women visas.

A State Department spokesman said that the Immigration and Nationality Act forbids entry to anyone who advocates violence. When pressed on the specifics -- what kind of violence and when, where and against whom it was applied -- the spokesman, in model terseness, said, "I can't be forthcoming with the information."

The law, it seems, says such facts must be "confidential." The spokesman wasn't saying, either, what higher-up was taking responsibility for the decision. Elliott Abrams, the State Department's leading champion of selectivity on human-rights issues, wouldn't say if he was involved.

Diplomatic fishiness is on display. Four human-rights workers -- well- known in El Salvador and praised by human-rights groups in the United States -- are kept out by the same State Department that recently allowed in Roberto D'Aubuisson. Few are less fit for a visa than D'Aubuisson, labeled "a pathological killer" by former ambassador Robert White when he once testified before Congress.

Last August, the current ambassador in San Salvador received in his office three of the four allegedly violent women. They were part of a small CO- MADRES delegation who told Thomas Pickering of their work. If the four were so unfit to come to the United States, why were they allowed in the embassy? If the charges of violence are true, why didn't the Salvadoran government arrest them long ago? Is the ruthless secret police showing leniency to these four, while killing or kidnapping by whim anyone else it wants?

Patrick Rice, an Irish-born priest who was once a political prisoner in Argentina and who nominated the CO- MADRES group for its award, accompanied the women to the embassy in August. He reports that Pickering was grateful to the group for its human- rights work. Rice, who spoke at the Nov. 20 ceremony at Georgetown, said he has been given no specific information about the violence the women are said to have committed.

He has nothing but contempt for the State Department's decision to bar them. "Great damage has been done by these false accusations," he said. "They are totally untrue. Now there is a justification for killing them. Archbishop Oscar Romero, before his assassination, was being accused of all sorts of things. Anyone in the death squad now has a perfect excuse for killing the women: The State Department has said they are terrorists."

Other words have been thrown out, too: subversives, leftists. Out of the noise and general racket that this administration can create from what ought to be quiet occasions of peace, the country is again seeing ideological exclusion at work. More than two dozen people have been recently rejected for visas because of their politics. They have ranged from the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the widow of Salvador Allende of Chile.

Keeping out the CO-MADRES women has as much chance of silencing their message as trying to dam a river of blood with a patch of gauze. If this were an administration of compassion and justice, the women would have been welcomed as heroines. Instead, the official policy is one of shame: It makes enemies of people we would be honored to have as friends.