Neville Cramer has just parked his car on 20th near L Street. It is midafternoon at a busy intersection, crowded with pedestrians. But three Oriental men, walking together, catch his attention.

His eyes move from their faces to their clothing, and Cramer's mind reflexively goes to work. The men are Chinese, he concludes; their white trousers tell him they are kitchen workers just leaving their downtown restaurant; and their slippers are typically Chinese, not worn in this country, a sign that they are recent immigrants. To Cramer, the chances are good that these three men are in the United States illegally, working without a permit. As an investigator for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, he says, he may legally stop them right there and ask to see their papers. If they didn't have passports, he could arrest them on the spot. But he doesn't. Street arrests, he explains, are "frowned upon," by INS. "There's where we get the Nazi image."

Something about the

whole procedure of

regulating aliens of fends American sensi bilities, as Cramer well knows. The idea of a law enforcement officer banging on someone's door at dawn brings uncomfortable historical images to mind. And Americans are mindful of their roots in other countries. Cramer, himself, is the grandson of immigrants. Within his own family, he is something of a maverick. His father and brother are physicians. Cramer worked his way through the University of Arizona, supporting himself by working in a mortuary for the minimum wage ("sewing up bodies," he says) and as a policeman. Part of his education was paid for by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and he worked as a police officer before joining the U.S. Border Patrol and working along the Texas- Mexican border for a year.

Cramer, who brings deep convictions to his work, reflects two sides of the American experience--immigrant roots, yet a distrust of foreigners and foreign influences. That distrust runs deep in the American psyche, fueled by visions of masses of foreigners coming to America's shores, crowding into its cities, depressing wages, depleting resources and mongrelizing its culture.

Washington, in Cramer's eyes, swarms with illegal aliens--as many as 125,000 to 250,000 of them. What he does for a living is clearly a matter of some pain for Cramer, not because he does not believe in what he is doing but because he also feels that the public either is indifferent to the problem or fails to understand the laws that he is paid to enforce; that politicians are hypocritical; and that unemployed Americans are unwilling to work in jobs that go to foreigners by default.

"I can give you an analogy . . . You're sitting on the deck of the U.S.S. Titanic steaming toward an iceberg and you're trying to tell everybody on deck that you see this iceberg and they're making believe that there's nothing around you. And you're trying to tell them that you're in for a collision course with something that could sink you."

In the official mythology

of the United States,

America is the land of

opportunity, its door

open to "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Between 1820, when immigration records were first kept, and 1880, 10 million immigrants came to the United States. In the next 40 years, another 23.5 million immigrants arrived. In 1917, Congress enacted the first selective immigration law, continuing bans already in place on prostitutes, beggars, anarchists, convicts, the insane and "feebleminded," and adding language essentially barring Asians.

Since 1921, using one formula or another, Congress has attempted to impose quotas on immigration--not barring the door entirely, but not leaving it open, either.

For a decade or more, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been warning the country that America is being inundated with illegal immigrants, mostly from this hemisphere. Cramer is a law enforcement officer, one of only a dozen or so responsible for covering the District of Columbia, northern and southwest Virginia. And although he has been sworn to enforce a law of the United States, Cramer's appearance is often greeted with the enthusiasm reserved for the arrival of a hurricane or bubonic plague. Cramer's job consists in large measure of showing up where he is unwanted, disrupting lives and commerce, arresting people whose principal offense is that their presence in the United States is illegal.

Shortly after 8 a.m. one morning in February, Cramer parks his car in the driveway of an apartment building on 16th Street near Columbia Road, an area he says is teeming with illegal immigrants. He is seeking information about an illegal immigrant who failed to show for a deportation hearing. Entering the building, Cramer nods to the janitor and makes his way up the stairway (the elevator isn't working) past discarded beer cans and garbage. Cramer guesses from the appearance of the tenants whom he passes on the stairs --slight builds, black hair and brown skin--that they, too, are illegal aliens, but he merely greets them and goes on. And it is likely that they know he is "La Migra"--an immigration agent.

At the door of the third- floor apartment, he pauses, listening for noises inside. "Someone's home," he says quietly. This is a tense moment. "When we deal with an alien," he explains, "we don't know who this person is . . . When we knock on the door, we never know what to expect. They may feel that you're the only thing between them and freedom." Although he is carrying a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, he leaves it in the holster on his hip. He fiddles with his trenchcoat, pulling it back and then knocks, waits a moment and knocks again. The door is opened by a sallow youth in an undershirt, still drowsy. Cramer moves forward slightly, so that his body is in the doorway, his right foot planted against the door. He introduces himself in Spanish as an agent of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and asks to enter.

Typically, the man Cramer has come looking for is not there. Cramer is not surprised, however, to find a "nest" of 10 illegal immigrants--five men, three women and two children-- living in the two-bedroom apartment.

They are all from El Salvador, the source of most of the city's illegal immigrants at the moment, acording to Cramer. He moves cautiously to the rear of the apartment, knocking at the two bedroom doors, asking the occupants in Spanish to come out. When they are all in view, he introduces himself, asking them questions about where they are from, when and where they entered the United States and, if they work, where. At almost 6 foot 4 and 210 pounds, Cramer looms over the Salvadorans, a dominance that makes him self-conscious.

The conversation is relaxed, not exactly convivial, but not hostile either. "In some circumstances," Cramer says, "I wouldn't be sitting here this nonchalantly. But the chances are that if there were weapons here, they already would have used them. They've been through this before."

In fact, one of the women produces a paper showing that she has a deportation hearing scheduled in Los Angeles where she already has been arrested. One of the men tells Cramer, "Things are very bad in my country. Fighting. Dangerous. Very bad." Cramer says nothing. Since the telephone is not working, he uses a two-way radio to ask his office for help so he can take the group in. He figures the seven immigrants will require a total of 30 hours of paperwork to process, meaning that the rest of his day and several of his colleagues will be taken up with this one incident.

Two District police officers, who have been asked to "transport" the aliens, arrive within half an hour and begin cuffing the men to each other in pairs.

Because of budget restraints, the Washington district INS office is reluctant to arrest more aliens in a day than can be processed and released. Otherwise, they have to be held overnight in the city lock-up, an expensive proposition that INS tries to avoid. As a result, bail is kept low--usually from $500 to $2,000--so that aliens often forfeit the money rather than appear for a hearing that is likely to result in their deportation.

As the procession of aliens moves out the door, Cramer seizes on this one incident to illustrate the magnitude of the problem. "This is one apartment in one building in one small area. It's the first stop of the day. It'll probably take me and the rest of the guys in my office the rest of the day to take care of the paperwork."

Cramer knows that since these aliens are from El Salvador that when they have exhausted other channels, they will ask for political asylum. Although granting or denying such requests is not his decision, he views them with skepticism: "We've questioned people who've been apprehended: 'Do you know who's fighting in your country?' we ask. 'No.' 'Did you know they were fighting in your country?' 'No.' 'Do you know who the president is?' 'No.' 'Do you know what the two sides are that are fighting?' And then a lawyer comes in and immediately claims that he can't go back home because he'll be murdered because he's involved in the political factions there.

"I'm not saying El Salvador doesn't have problems," he adds, emphasizing he is offering a personal point of view, "but if we were to take in 3 million people from every country with problems, where would we be?"

When Cramer warms to the subject, he has quite a bit to say about illegal aliens and what Americans don't understand about them. "First," he says about the aliens, "they are not all fruit pickers in southern California. Some get good jobs.

"Two, they are not all hard-working individuals. Some are involved in welfare fraud, unemployment, food stamp and marriage fraud."

And the following day, shortly after 8 a.m., Cramer is knocking at a Northeast apartment, checking out a suspected fraudulent marriage. Under U.S. law, spouses of American citizens are also eligible for citizenship, a provision that apparently provides a source of cash for Americans with a less than romantic attitude toward marriage. As it turns out, the person Cramer is looking for does not live at the address given, but the main occupant of the apartment, a student from Somalia, also is married to an American. When Cramer checks the Somali's visa number against a list of those suspected by INS to be involved in a fraudulent marriage ring, he finds the number.

From the moment Cramer has entered the apartment, the student has objected to Cramer's presence, asserting--incorrectly--that Cramer must have a "warranty" to be there. "I think it's an invasion of my rights," the student tells Cramer, who avoids a debate and keeps asking questions. Since the student is supposedly married to an American, Cramer asks where she is.

"She's not permanently living with me," the student replies. "She used to come live with me for a while and then go home." He has not seen her for three months, he says. He thinks she is living with her parents in Baltimore, although he does not know their address. Cramer asks if she has any clothing in the house, any toilet articles, anything that would indicate that she is a resident--or at least a visitor. She has nothing there. "I tell you everything," the student says. "She's not living with me." Cramer gives the student a card from his gold case and tells him to have his lawyer contact Cramer.

INS procedures developed under court rulings make work difficult for Cramer and other investigators. "The attorneys and the courts have made it very difficult to prove that they're not married to each other," Cramer says. "You have to collect a tremendous amount of evidence to prove it's not a valid marriage."

Besides the limitations imposed on him by the courts, Cramer and other agents are frustrated by Congress' unwillingness to pass legislation requiring employers to check an immigrant employe's work status. A few hours after dealing with the suspected Somali marriage fraud, Cramer drives to an expensive restaurant in Northern Virginia. He has received an anonymous letter--INS receives many such letters from jilted lovers, displaced workers, angry employers and others--reporting that the restaurant's chef is working illegally. Cramer drives around the restaurant to check for the possible escape routes, parks his car and then calls the restaurant, using an Indian accent (to keep the employer off guard), to see if the chef is working. He is informed that the chef is in. Cramer goes into the restaurant, is greeted by an employe and asks to see the chef.

He introduces himself to the chef and asks to see his passport. The chef tells Cramer to call the chef's lawyer and refuses to answer any questions. Then, with lunch cooking and the restaurant's owner standing by, Cramer informs the chef he is under arrest and tells him to put his hands on the wall. Cramer frisks the chef and puts handcuffs on him. The employer, who sees his lunch and maybe dinner business thrown into chaos, objects to the arrest, Cramer replies in a matter- of-fact tone, "This man is an illegal alien in the United States."

The employer objects to the handcuffs. "He isn't a criminal," he asserts."

"I understand that," Cramer says, but the handcuffs are a precaution required by the INS.

A few weeks earlier, Cramer had been in a restaurant kitchen when an alien holding a knife started toward another immigration agent. Cramer reached for his gun, but managed to knock the knife out of the man's hand with a flashlight, an incident that he said left him shaken. Sometimes at night, when he is home, alone, he said, tears come to his eyes. He has trouble sleeping, worrying that he might kill someone--or be killed.

While arresting the chef, Cramer at no time appears angry or violent. When the chef asks if he can change his clothes, Cramer takes him downstairs, uncuffs him, waits for him to change and allows him to call his lawyer. Cramer then drives the chef to his apartment to get his passport. The chef, who Cramer later finds out makes more than $10 an hour, does not yet have a work permit. When they get to the apartment, Cramer agrees to take the cuffs off so that the chef's wife will not see her husband with them. "I'm doing you a favor," Cramer tells him, "so you do me one. Don't pick up anything or touch anything without letting me see what it is first." The visit at the apartment is without incident and Cramer takes the chef downtown, where he is questioned by another agent. The chef's lawyer arrives within an hour after her client.

Cramer knows that his work disrupts the lives of many. He gets no particular pleasure from that. Cramer denies that he is hostile to immigrants or to foreigners. "Many people view the immigration officer as someone who's against what the Statue of Liberty stands for," Cramer says. "That's not true at all. The Statue of Liberty doesn't say anything about illegal immigration. The Statue of Liberty stands for legal immigration."

He says that the United States has brought its population under control, but he sees a "massive population explosion" elsewhere that threatens this country. "You're talking about what America stands for. If we continue at the rate we're going, America isn't going to be what America is today or was. This whole country can change, and change for the worse. We now have people coming into the United States that don't want to speak our language. . . . I don't think my grandparents went into a voting booth and saw their language --and didn't expect to."

Cramer occasionally has to take pains to separatee his professional and personal worlds. On at least one occasion, the owner of a restaurant where Cramer went to eat has suggested to him that the staff has recognized him as an immigration agent and would be happier if he left. When Cramer goes to parties, he has to put up with comments and jokes he doesn't find very funny. "Everybody tells you about their illegal maid that they have and 'Don't touch Maria,' and 'Don't touch Juanita.' And they make a joke out of it, and it isn't a joke. That's your profession. But you have to listen and you have to bite your tongue and smile and turn away and walk away from it."

What appears to embitter Cramer most, however, is rhetoric from local politicians and columnists who speak alarmingly about unemployment among black youths but never, he says, about illegal immigrants. "Who the hell do you think is taking the jobs from black youths?" he asks. "Has anyone ever expressed concern about illegal immigration? People say to me, 'Who are you to talk?' I'll tell you who I am. I sat there and sewed up dead bodies in a mortuary for two years to put myself through college. A job is a job."

Cramer is 32 and makes around $35,000 a year, enough to live comfortably since he is single. Although he may be getting a little old for foot races with aliens trying to escape-- especially since he injured his knee wrestling with one recently-- he says he still likes his job. "In the first place, it's always different . . . Aside from that, hopefully, you are accomplishing something, no matter how small it may be. You've been given a job to do and it's important that the individual goes out and does that job the best way he can. That might sound a little idealistic, but it's true."