When people who are willing to die for a chance to live in America are summarily shooed away by Coast Guard cutters, one may wonder whether the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breath free are still welcome in this country.

The vast abyss between words and deeds was dramatically, frighteningly apparent last weekend when Coast Guard cutters intercepted a 30-foot Haitian sailboat and ordered a prompt about-face.One woman threw herself overboard, apparently preferring death to life in her native land. She was rescued, but others threatened to toss children into the sea if the boat was not allowed to proceed. After 27 hours, the refugees finally agreed to return to Haiti.

This is not an isolated incident. In 1988, the Coast Guard stopped 4,712 Haitian refugees, up from 3,606 in 1987 and 64 in 1981.

What brings so many people to undertake such a desperate bid for freedom? What can possibly be worth a harrowing journey in a barely seaworthy craft toward a country that aggressively protects its borders?

A new book titled "Forced Out" provides some insights into motives of those who are willing to risk everything to come to the land of the free.

"If we speak out, they kill us," said one Salvadoran. "If we're suspected of speaking out, they disappear us. And if we keep our mouths shut, they think we're hiding something. So they kill us for that too."

On the other side of the world, the United States has nagged Moscow for years to let Jews leave the Soviet Union. Now that Gorbachev has agreed, America is refusing to accept any more such people once the quota limit is reached in April or May.

To be fair, it must be acknowledged that the United States is physically incapable of shouldering the collective suffering of all people worldwide who are haunted by repression and hunger. What's more, a nation that cannot control its borders probably can't rightly even be called a nation.

Yet it seems there is more at work here than a concern for the integrity of national boundaries. Illegal aliens cross from Mexico by the tens of thousands every year while a relative handful of others are denied official entry. At the very least, there ought to be some consideration other than "policy" and "quotas."

Although Americans can't be expected to welcome everyone and anyone who dreams of a better life, those barely surviving nightmarish existences of repression and starvation should have a realistic hope of one day knowing that the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are not simply dead phrases.