Jim Corbett estimates that he's smuggled or helped 400 refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala across the Mexican border into the United States. There are others who perform the same function as Corbett, but they do it for money. They are called coyotes. But Corbett is different. He's more a cowboy.

A retired Arizona rancher, he has guided people through holes in wire border fences and driven them past border surveillance points. He refuses any money offered him. He has called himself a lawyer and once posed as a priest to get into local prisons and jails near the border to visit refugees who were arrested. He and his wife have hidden as many as 20 refugees at one time in their house. He goes to Mexico to do "pre-crossing counseling" with Latins planning to cross--telling them how to look, how to act, what to expect if they get caught--and he arranges housing for them.

He does it to help them escape the violence and oppression they say they fear in their own countries.

"Most had not been tortured or jailed, but virtually all had a friend or a neighbor who had been," Corbett says. "I've never yet talked with a Salvadoran who wasn't traumatized by the violence."

What he does is illegal, and he has never been caught--surprising, perhaps, since he has been profiled on national television. One newspaper reporter early on dubbed Corbett's operation the "underground railroad," after the Civil War era network that carried slaves to freedom.

"I've been unusually lucky," Corbett says, riding in the back of a taxi after participating in a press conference yesterday on the steps of the Capitol to publicize the plight of Salvadoran refugees. He was brought here by Salvadorean Refugees Against Certification, one of several private organizations protesting U.S. policy in El Salvador.

"When I started out, I thought I would last two months," he says. "I thought I'd be in jail, and if I were let out on my own recognizance I'd still have to help people. I couldn't let people go back to be murdered."

Indeed, he has been very lucky at his two-year smuggling career.

"We have never arrested him, because we have never caught him doing anything illegal," says Verne Jervis, press officer for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Going on television and saying you're doing something illegal is totally different from being caught doing something illegal and having witnesses to it. Let me simply say we are watching his activities. We are aware of what he says and we are watchful of it."

Says another INS source, "The INS border patrol police take pride in what they do, and they don't like someone thumbing their nose at them. There are border patrol officers who would like very much to catch him."

"Gosh, the first two times I came so close--until I got better at it," says Corbett. "One plan involved 11 people--we possibly made it too elaborate." A woman in Nogales, Ariz.--a Mexican with residency status--had agreed to temporarily hold the family overnight, he says. In the middle of the night, "she got nervous and ultimately hysterical thinking what might happen to her," Corbett says. "She wanted me to pick them up. At 2 in the morning in Nogales, you have cops and border patrol police and no one else. She was about ready to push these people into the street." He got a relative of hers to persuade her to keep them overnight. The next morning he arranged for the children in the family to nonchalantly leave the house flanked by Chicano children--chatting away at them in English.

Corbett is only one of hundreds of people--not just along the border but throughout the country--who are part of a growing church sanctuary movement. In violation of INS rules, churches across the country have offered sanctuary to refugees of political violence in Central America.

"It's the church being what it's supposed to be," says Corbett, a 49-year-old Quaker. "It's supposed to stand with the persecuted and the dispossessed in the face of oppression."

Even when it's breaking the law?

"Just being a Christian originally was breaking the law," says Corbett. "Same with being a Quaker."

Either smuggling or harboring aliens carries a maximum fine of $2,000 and five years of imprisonment--per alien. But lots of people are involved in this activity, says Corbett. "Priests and nuns do it all the time," he says. "They're some of our best smugglers."

The INS has never gone into churches hunting aliens, nor will it start at this point, according to Jervis. "We don't want to create the confrontation they almost seem to be seeking." Instead, Jervis says, members of the sanctuary movement are encouraged to work legally for refugees wanting political asylum.

But it's tough to get--even though a ruling can be appealed through several levels. In 1982, 1,067 Salvadorans were denied political asylum. Seventy-four were granted it. Twenty-two thousand cases involving Salvadorans are pending in a very clogged system.

Jervis says the INS hears the stories about Salvadorans returned to El Salvador who are later found dead. "We have to be concerned about it, but we don't get any specifics," Jervis says. "We get generalizations . . . Certainly this government does not willfully send people back to what is their death or their persecution."

And Corbett, himself, is not like the coyotes each smuggling thousands of people into the United States. "Looking at it in terms of the number, 400 is not a lot," says Jervis, "although I would say looking at it in terms of what he's doing--here's a person who's apparently not doing it for profit. He's a decent, honorable person. Looking at it in that way, he's a problem. If we have dozens of law-abiding persons taking the law into their own hand in certain cases, that's a problem."

Corbett really was a cowboy in Arizona for a while. But now arthritis has severely stiffened his fingers, leaving them without the flexibility ranching requires.

He's always been something of a renegade. After earning a bachelor's degree from Colgate University and a master's in philosophy from Harvard, he was drafted into the Army, where his commanding officer called him a "demoralizing influence," according to Corbett. He went to the University of Southern California for library school and then to the library at Cochise College in southern Arizona. He was later fired from a library job at Chico State University in California for "technically holding a one-man strike," he says. He was protesting the firing of a sociology professor.

His involvement with refugees began when he sympathetically tried to help a Salvadoran imprisoned after a friend of Corbett's picked him up hitchhiking. Up to then, Corbett had been working with goat ranchers on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula and was fairly removed from current political events. Corbett visited him in jail. "And I talked to two more sitting next to him and heard about other relatives." He and his wife posted bond for some of the refugees and continued to visit more.

"I would go and visit 70 and 80 refugees in prison and I would give them all my name as a contact point. And after a while a lot of people in El Salvador knew my name. So thousands of people knew me as a contact."

He speaks Spanish and always knew some from ranching--"cowboy Spanish," he calls it.

The smuggling began when one refugee he had contacted, then in Phoenix, asked Corbett for help in getting a relative who had made it as far as Nogales, Mexico, near the border. "We ended up in Nogales at 12 midnight on the slum side of the red-light district trying to find someone located in a basement." They finally found the person, hid him and then, watching the patterns of the border patrol, sneaked him through a hole in a chain link fence at 12:45 in the afternoon. "Most of the border patrol was at lunch," Corbett said.

He has admiration for the people he helps, most of whom have already traveled a substantial distance from their home countries by the time he meets them at the Mexican border. "These are really top-quality survivors," he says.

Whatever the political circumstances, the INS may not get the chance to seize Corbett, because he now believes that his physical presence around aliens may be "a flag" for the border patrol. "I can't do things right up against the border anymore," he says.

But it will be difficult for him to stop smuggling.

"I know a lawyer representing refugees," says Corbett. "She has 2,000 cases a year. She never wins one. But when you have to find a way to drive around a roadblock, you've got a beginning, a middle and an end. If there was a stretch of days when I couldn't do this work, I found myself like an addict, needing something that could be done that way."