THE international system of refugee protection is based on an understanding that countries immediately bordering a refugee-producing state will accept refugees until the rest of the world can pitch in and help. The bordering state is called the country of first asylum.Over the years, the United States and other rich industrial countries, removed from refugee hot spots, have maintained pressure on potential first-asylum countries not to turn back refugees. Our government has pressured third-world countries, for example, telling Thailand not to push back Laotians and Cambodians, and Malaysia not to prevent Vietnamese boat people from landing. Our government has noted that the international system of burden-sharing can't function if refugees are not given immediate, temp orary protection at the point of escape. Now the US finds itself positioned as a country of first asylum. Haitians are fleeing the clamp-down in the aftermath of the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by boarding rickety boats and taking their chances on dangerous seas. Given the close proximity of Haiti to Florida, rescuing them should be a simple matter. The process of admitting to the US more than 500,000 Vietnamese boat people who landed in Asian countries of first asylum has been expensive and politically difficult. First asylum has been maintained only through great efforts on the part of the US government and other nations willing to resettle them. The US, in conjunction with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), hammered out a "comprehensive plan of action" with the Asian first-asylum governments in 1989. US pledges to resettle and assist refugees were traded for a commitment from the first-asylum states not to turn asylum seekers away. In the present circumstances, the straightforward course of action would be for the US to allow Haitian boat people to land, and give them the opportunity to apply for asylum like anyone else. However, our government has shopped around the Caribbean in order to create middlemen - so far Belize, Honduras, and Venezuela - who will take the Haitians whom we have interdicted. We are embarking on a convoluted and costly process of establishing a new, artificial tier of first-asylum countries in the region tha t are demonstrably less well equipped than we to shoulder the burden of caring for refugees. In 1981 the UNHCR executive committee, which includes the US government, adopted the conclusion that "asylum seekers rescued at sea should always be admitted, at least on a temporary basis," and that "persons rescued at sea should normally be disembarked at the next port of call." IT is quite a stretch to interpret Honduras, Venezuela, or Belize as "the next port of call" for Haitian asylum seekers. But rather than admit them and allow them support and legal assistance, the US swaps deals and twists arms throughout the Caribbean to avoid taking on a responsibility that we are best suited to handle. For weeks, we witnessed US Coast Guard cutters detaining 500 Haitian boat people, while the State Department looked for places to palm them off. It is frequently alleged that the Haitians are economic migrants, not refugees at all. The same self-serving accusation is often leveled against the Vietnamese by Asian countries of first asylum. Minimally, asylum seekers must be allowed access to a legal procedure for determining if they are, in fact, refugees - persons with a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. Instead, we find the development of a wholly new procedure pre-screening as one more obstacle placed in the path of persons seeking asylum. The screening procedure instituted in Hong Kong has been widely criticized for its procedural deficiencies. Meanwhile, Amnesty International and others have documented the deplorable conditions of detention for "screened-out" asylum seekers who refuse to repatriate voluntarily. Are we to recreate these mistakes in the Caribbean? Our own pre-screening track record is deplorable. For most of the past decade, the US has informally screened interdicted Haitians while still aboard Coast Guard vessels returning them to Haiti. Between 1981 and 1990, only 11 Haitians out of more than 22,000 who were interdicted were "screened in" to pursue their claims for asylum in the US. Under reforms introduced in March 1991, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) "asylum pre-screening office rs" were directed to conduct more detailed interviews. Despite modest improvements in the procedure, though, the Haitian interdiction and screening operation still falls short of a just or legal policy. As repression in Haiti intensifies and the number of asylum seekers rises, the INS turns to client states with even poorer records of refugee protection. Honduras, which has been on the refugee front line in Central America, is not even a signatory to the Refugee Convention and Protocol. Throughout the 1980s, Honduras held Salvadoran refugees as virtual prisoners in closed camps amid frequent and well-substantiated reports of abuses by Honduran military personnel. Rather than acting in accord with the international legal consensus for refugee protection, the US government looks for dumping grounds among regimes that have shown little regard for refugees in the past. Unquestionably, our economy is better able than any other in the region to absorb a refugee influx and our legal system is more likely to ensure respect for basic human rights. As we work to restore democracy and the rule of law in Haiti, let us do the decent thing, the simple thing as the true country of first asylum, and offer temporary protection to the people who have appealed to our humanity.