The United States is about to pay - at least in part - a debt of conscience to Amerasian children in four countries.
Congress is expected to enact, this fall or early next year, a law that will open the immigration gates for thousands of young people fathered and abandoned by Americans in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Korea.
For years a number of individuals and groups in the United States have struggled with the problem of what to do about these children, mostly the offspring of US servicemen. Organizations like the Pearl S. Buck Foundation have encountered little difficulty (where Asian governments cooperated) in finding homes for Amerasian tots. But for those children of mixed parentage who grew into their teens - often under demoralizing circumstances - in their ''home'' countries, finding sponsors in the United States is much more difficult.
At best, say those who have worked on the problem, governments of most of the countries involved have been indifferent to the situation; at worst, the children have been scorned by their countrymen and discriminated against officially and unofficially.
In recent years, as refugee problems have intruded on the American consciousness, the shabby treatment of an estimated 150,000 young people in at least eight countries (Japan, Kampuchea, the Philippines, and Taiwan are not included in the proposed legislation) has been called to the attention of Congress and the US public by editorials, columns, and articles in many leading publications, including The Christian Science Monitor.
Two similar Amerasian bills, sponsored by US Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (D) of Maryland and Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) of Alabama have strong backing on Capitol Hill. The Reagan administration is behind the Denton bill (S. 1698), and a source close to the issue says 76 senators are ready to vote for it. An aide to Congressman McKinney points out that his bill (H. 808) has 286 co-sponsors in the 435-member House.
The proposals would recognize these young people as the sons and daughters of American fathers and put the Amerasians in the ''first preference'' category within the immigration quotas for their countries (they now are in the bottom categroy).
The only question now seems to be whether the ''Amerasian bill'' will become part of the omnibus immigration bill which includes President Reagan's controversial changes in the handling of illegal immigrants. The McKinney propsal was attached to the omnibus bill by a House Judiciary Committee, and a similar move is expected in the Senate.
But whether the Amerasian proposal is part of the omnibus bill or is separate , it will become law before the end of next year, says John Shade, executive director of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. If the overall bill gets snagged in the last few weeks of the current congressional session, the Amerasian bill will be reintroduced early next year, he explains, and almost certainly enacted.
Mr. Shade, who has worked with this problem for two decades, points out that the exclusion of four Asian nations is not the only deficiency in the current proposal. If the bills have to be reintroduced in 1983, he would like to see them include the other four countries.
The Buck Foundation director says he would prefer that the Amerasian situation not be handled through immigration law changes, but more directly. He and others cite the French policy in Vietnam. After pulling its forces out of that country in 1954, France established the Federation for the Welfare of French Children of Indochina (Federation des Oeuvres des Enfants Francais d'Indochine), automatically gave them French citizenship, transported them to France for care and education, and gave them the choice at age 18 of remaining French citizens or adopting their mothers' nationality.
Although the present Vietnamese government previously had refused to acknowledge the presence of half-American children in the country, it recently indicated willingness to have them identified and removed from Vietnam.
Shade says that the Communist government may have the impression there is a groundswell of American public opinion on behalf of these children and that they can be used as a ''bargaining chip'' in other dealings with the US. He maintains there is no widespread upwelling of sympathy for Amerasian children in the US.
Nevertheless, Shade will be going to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) within the next month to try to open an office that could provide the basis for some immigration agreement.
Many fathers of Amerasian children apparently have no wish to be reunited with their abandoned offspring. But Shade makes clear that there also are many American men, even with ''stateside'' wives and families now, who are very desirous of finding their Amerasian offspring and taking them into their homes.