LONDON. — WINTER HAS ARRIVED in hungry, food-short Russia. Is rich, warm, well-fed Western Europe mentally ready for the great exodus?
One of the few sensible things that President Ronald Reagan said on matters economic was in 1981, when discussing the rise in immigration. He called for ''open borders.'' It was part of his highly over-simplified, supply-side economics, for which America is now paying a heavy price.
But the liberalization of immigration policy that he initiated, and which recently has advanced even further with the new act that raises the annual immigration quota from 500,000 to 750,000, should be regarded as one of his better contributions to the health and well-being of America. It keeps the U.S. economy virile, competitive and, as ever, more assertive than its rivals.
In a noticeable contrast to America a mood of anti-immigrant xenophobia is all-pervasive throughout Europe. At the best of times it is neither pleasant nor attractive. But now with the breakup of the Soviet empire and the terminal illness of the old communist economies threatening to push millions of refugees westward, it bodes ill for the ability of Western Europe to make the best of a what is going to be a demanding situation. The Economist believes it could be ''the largest wave of European migration ever.''
Over the last 30 years, since modern-day immigration of mainly Third World workers began, one European country after another has succumbed to near-hysterical racism. In Britain in the 1960s and 1970s under the pressure of an influential Conservative legislator, Enoch Powell, with his speeches predicting ''rivers of blood'' if the borders weren't tightened, Britain all but closed its doors.
In France, which has tried to stay more open, the machinations of the rightist fringe politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, have so exacerbated tension that immigration has been the number one domestic political issue the past year. And so on around Europe.
Much of this hostility has to do with the different skin color of most of these immigrants. But in today's charged atmosphere millions of men and women moving in from Eastern Europe, for all their whiteness, could be more than Western electorates would stomach -- unless some of their leaders find the arguments and the words to put over to public opinion a convincing explanation of what the benefits might be.
When frontiers become almost closed, as they have in a number of West European countries, it has the opposite effect of what was intended -- instead of reducing racial and ethnic tension it exacerbates it.
How does one explain this seeming paradox? With the door securely closed behind them those immigrants who were vTC allowed in get on with the business of finding success, or at least security.
But once they've made a little progress they start to adapt to the relaxed and self-satisfied lifestyle of the host country. They, too, begin to shun the lower-paying jobs and the night shifts. When a factory closes down, instead of moving to a new town and looking for work, they prefer to stay put and draw unemployment pay. All this, well publicized and often exaggerated by the popular media, ratchets up the intensity of host-country resentment.
But when the frontiers are more open, as in America, the chemistry changes. Every week brings a new influx of men and women prepared to do anything to make it. Immigrants are not popularly seen as people settling down and becoming comfortable. (Although, of course, those well established still are.) Instead, the dominant image is the one thrown up by the newcomers -- an infusion of hot blood, each competing to get a foot on the ladder, prepared to do anything at any hour for any price. You can get a plumber at nine in the evening, buy fresh milk and vegetables at midnight and, not least, keep a factory on full throttle round the clock.
The truth is that industrially sophisticated societies need this constant arrival of new blood. For all Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's harsh medicine for an ailing British economy, the fact that she ultimately failed is mainly because she never managed to get on top of the wage-push that constantly rushes ahead of productivity.
The two big reasons for this were her refusal until recently to enter the European Monetary System and the tight watch Britain keeps on its boundaries. For immigrant or refugee, Britain is the most inhospitable of Western countries.
If Western Europe decides to ignore its racist demagogues and be intelligent about the predicted flood of Soviet and Eastern European refugees it should just lie back and enjoy it. It should take heart from a new encyclopedic American study, ''The Economic Consequences of Immigration,'' by Julian Simon. He concludes, ''Taking in immigrants at a rate equal to or even above our present admission rate improves our average standard of living. American citizens do well by doing good when admitting refugees.''
No society can live isolated, corseted and petrified, hiding behind closed doors. We need not just the free flow of goods and capital, but labor, too.