WHEN Patricia Lara was expelled from the United States recently after four days in prison, she joined the ranks of distinguished foreigners to be excluded from this country on ideological grounds. Under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, the government may deny visas to Communists or anyone else it decides might ``engage in activities which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or endanger the welfare, safety, or security of the United States.'' Ms. Lara, a respected Colombian journalist, flew in to attend an award ceremony at Columbia University, her alma mater. Instead, immigration officials at the airport let her choose between prison and the next flight home. The issuance of her visa had been a mistake, they explained, since her name appears in the ``Lookout Book'' of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Like the 40,000 other foreigners reportedly on this roster, Lara is excludable for political reasons that the government has no obligation to divulge.
Lara chose detention nevertheless, hoping the matter would be resolved in time for the awards ceremony. She had, after all, visited the United States only last spring. She denied ever having belonged to any communist party or guerrilla movement. But the INS would not budge, even after the Colombian ambassador attested to her credentials and offered to take custody of her during her brief stay.
In the absence of evidence or charges, one can only speculate as to why the young journalist was barred. Maybe it was her articles that criticized US policy in Central America, or her best-selling book on Colombian guerrillas. Perhaps it was because she helped US reporters contact antigovernment leaders in her country, or because she reported from Cuba. Unfair as it may seem, these could well be the factors that made it necessary to protect the American people from Patricia Lara.
More than his predecessors, President Reagan has used the McCarran-Walter Act against those whose only transgression would appear to be opposition to his policies. In 1983, Nino Pasti, a retired Italian general in NATO who opposes the deployment of American missiles in Europe, was excluded. Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tom'as Borge was barred because he sought ``to make speeches critical of President Reagan's Central American policy,'' according to an administration official who spoke off the record.
In the case of Angel Rama, an Uruguayan tenured professor at the University of Maryland, even a personal plea to President Reagan by the President of Colombia failed to halt deportation proceedings under McCarran-Walter. When Rama, an avowed socialist, died a year later, his status was still in limbo -- and, like Lara, he had enjoyed no constitutional right to hear the evidence against him.
The McCarran-Walter act is ``sadomasochistic,'' says Mexican author Carlos Fuentes (he fell victim to it during the Kennedy presidency). It humiliates and deprives citizens from scores of countries, including our allies. And it hurts Americans by restricting what we may hear -- even though we ourselves may flaunt the views and political affiliations that are grounds for excluding others.
This cold war relic is also a public relations disaster. The US is the only country in North America or Western Europe with a statutory mechanism for keeping out people because of their beliefs.
The denial of a visa to Italian playwright Dario Fo made the funny pages throughout Europe. In Latin America, where US policies in the name of democracy cut closer to the bone, the sarcasm in response to the widely publicized harassment of Professor Rama was perhaps a good deal sharper. And now, one shudders to imagine Colombians reading the front-page news accounts of Patricia Lara sitting in a maximum-security prison in New York, prevented from attending an awards ceremony for ``distinguished contributions to the advancement of inter-American understanding and freedom of information.''
When the Soviets seized Nicholas Daniloff, our indignation was sharpened because the fall guy was a reporter, a member of the profession that embodies more than any other the free flow of information. When the McCarran-Walter Act victimizes a journalist like Lara, the message is magnified that the US also fears an unfettered trade in ideas.
Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York called Lara's exclusion ``painfully stupid.'' He is among those on Capitol Hill who seek to revise the exclusion provisions to stress deeds over beliefs. At a time when the administration trumpets its resolve to win the ideological battle for democracy worldwide, these revisions would be most welcome.
Eric Goldstein is an associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City.