On this Sunday before Christmas, on Varick Street in lower Manhattan near the New York waterfront, 33 refugees are among those being held in a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service "detention center" -- what we used to call, in less stuffy times, a jail. They already have been there for many months. Some may wait for as long as three years before learning whether they will be granted asylum in this country.

They are Afghans. Their crime, if any, is the crime of seeking asylum in a country that prides itself as being a haven for political dissidents. Ironically, our government, which aids the Afghanistan rebels in their fight against Soviet troops in their homeland, in this situation turns its back on the very same freedom fighters. Since they did not possess the proper documents or visas upon arrival in America, they were "detained" by the immigration service and placed inside the facility on Varick Street.

"It's very crowded, and there's not a single window," says a lawyer representing them. "They have not seen the outdoors. They're thrown together with adjudicated criminals, some of them violent. Some of my clients have been attacked while being held there. And among them are a lawyer, an architect, a doctor -- the kinds of people you'd think would make good citizens. Psychologically, it's very harrowing and it's very depressing. They're going out of their minds from anxiety and boredom. Just recently there was an escape there from Cubans and others who tied sheets together. And there's also been a suicide attempt: Someone tried to hang himself. If they'd been given life sentences for murder in the United States, these conditions would be found to be unconstitutional."

The person quoted is not some hyperbolic attorney given to making melodramatic statements designed to elicit sympathy for her case. She's a respected member of the bar and professor of law whose professional credentials include a Harvard law degree, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa key, editorship of the Harvard Law Review, private practice and, most recently, service as director of the Civil Rights Clinic of New York University's School of Law. Nadine Strossen, 35, also has just been named one of the 10 outstanding young Americans by the U.S. Jaycees. In short, Strossen is an eminently respectable mainstream American.

Last April Strossen, on behalf of the NYU Civil Rights Clinic, joined with the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights in filing a habeas corpus suit challenging the detention of these refugees. So far they have had no success. As Strossen says of the refugees:

"First of all, I want to make clear the only reason these people came to this country was because they feared for their lives in Afghanistan. Many of them were persecuted, imprisoned or tortured. Many have close relatives who have been killed, and all have closely been associated with freedom fighters there. They are bona fide refugees who came here as a haven of last opportunity, with well-founded fear of persecution based on their personal experiences, and who seek a chance to stay in this country."

I do not mean, in stating these facts, to imply that this is some Kafkaesque tale of official oppression. It is all legal, and the immigration service makes the case that it scrupulously has followed proper procedures in effect since the wave of "boat people" came crashing onto American shores several years ago. That's when illegal aliens began being placed in detention centers around the nation.

In the Afghan case, the immigration service's explanation goes this way: These are people who have jumped the process of applying for asylum. They've had enough money to be able to buy phony documents and a plane ticket enabling them to leave one nation (most likely India or Pakistan) en route to the United States. Then, before landing at New York's Kennedy Airport and facing U.S. customs, they either have destroyed the false documents or are found to be lacking proper entry credentials. As an immigration service spokesman told me: "They're knocking at the door trying to get in. They're saying they want asylum. Okay. They're entitled to apply. They're taken into custody and make their formal asylum applications and then the process begins."

With hearings, appeals, court backlogs and the rest, that process is lengthy. He also makes the point that the immigration service is not singling out Afghans for detention. In fiscal 1985, some 2,000 Afghans have been approved for refugee status. But, he concedes, "This is a difficult situation. There's no way around it."

Still, I believe Nadine Strossen put it best when she said: "I have legal, practical and moral objections to those arguments. All these factors should be irrelevant." She'd like to appeal this one directly to the president. If given the chance, she'd tell him:

"Mr. President, as chief executive of our country, which has pledged to support fighters for freedom against communist totalitarianism around the world, and particularly in Afghanistan, you should make the freedom of which this country is so proud available to brave men and women who have put their lives on the line for those values that we believe in and stand for."

Absolutely. What better time for an act of presidential charity than now, and what better presidential gift than the gift of freedom?