For more than 20 years, immigration into the U.S. from European countries - the traditional source of newcomers - has slowed to a trickle. Instead, 90 percent of the flow is now from Latin America and Asia.

It's not that the desire of people in Europe has changed, but U.S. immigration law since 1965 has put the emphasis on reuniting families.This has filled the immigration quota with people who often lacked language, education, or occupational skills immediately useful in the U.S. While most have been hard workers, many needed social service help for a time after their arrival.

This change in the immigrant pattern has been due in large part to the influx of refugees in recent decades - people who usually left behind large and extended families who later sought to come to the U.S. It also has come from abolishing rigid immigration quotas for certain countries.

Congress is finally recognizing it should make room for people from Europe and elsewhere who can make an immediate contribution to the national interest.

This overdue legislation would still keep most of the emphasis on reuniting families, but it also would establish an "independent" category reserved for immigrants with skills to offer. The yearly immigration quota would be raised by 100,000 to a total of 590,000. The independent category would have 120,000 of the slots.

After three years, the family-member category would drop to 440,000 and the independent category would rise to 150,000 a year.

The message on the Statue of Liberty opening the golden door to the "tired," the "poor," and the "huddled masses" will not have changed, but there ought to be room for the educated, the skilled, the English-speaking, as well.

Congress should pass this law when it returns after Sept. 7. The measure has bipartisan support and there is no reason for delay into 1989.