At 6 in the morning, Antonio leaves his tiny apartment off Columbia Road NW in the District of Columbia to catch two buses for a Montgomery County country club frequented by some of the most infuential people in Washington. There he cleans the floors, windows and restrooms, and throws out the garbage, earning less each week than many maids in Montgomery.

Antonio, 56, is one of an estimated 35,000 Salvadorans living in the Washington area. Like many others, he fled the political violence in his Central American nation and came illegally to the U.S. to seek asylum. But it is highly doubtful that Antonio or any of the others will be allowed to stay.

The State Department had decreed that the civil strife in El Salvador is not severe enough to grant blanket asylum to the Salvadorans, such as refugees from other war-torn nations have received.

More than 22,000 people have died in the fighting in El Salvador in the last 18 months.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that the Salvadoran emigrants should be considered political refugees, but the State Department has contended in various communiques that most of the Salvadorans have come to the U.S. seeking a more comfortable life, rather than a haven from the violence.

Antonio and thousands of illegal aliens like him form a cheap, underground source of labor in the nation's capital that cleans downtown office buildings, washes dishes and clears tables in some of the Washington areas most expensive restaurants and exclusive clubs. The Salvadorans comprise about half of the 70,000 Hispanics in the District, according to the city Office of Latino Affairs.

"This huge underground community of refugees is terribly important to the economy of Washington and to the creature comforts of some of the very bureaucrats who make the public policy that affects their lives," said Washington attorney Michael Maggio, who specializes in immigration cases.

"I find it very ironic that in this city, a cigar-smoking senator can sit in a Capitol Hill restaurant and rant and rave about all these 'illegal aliens' and how we should be sending more arms to the junta in El Salvador at the same time that his ashes are being dumped out by some Salvadoran refugee fleeing the violence."

The National Center for Immigrants' Rights says it is preparing to file a class action suit against the U.S. government, alleging that it is discriminating against the Salvadorans seeking asylum. The National Center was among the groups that successfully sued the government to prevent deportation of Haitian refugees who entered the United States by boat before this year seeking political asylum. However, any Haitians currently attempting to enter the United States are being turned back to their island country.

The center's lawyers and several social service groups say the United States does not want to grant the Salvadorans political refugee status, since that would be tantamount to admitting that the Salvadoran government, which the U.S. supports, is incapable of curbing the violence there, and is in some cases guilty of perpetuating it.

It is an assertion that officials from both the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service deny.

"Each case is considered on its merits. The El Salvadorans are treated as any other group," said Kellogg Whittick, chief of the Washington district office in INS. In order to win asylum here, refugees must prove that they would be persecuted upon returning their homeland.

The State Department estimates that as many as 500,000 Salvadorans are currently in the United States. The vast majority of them enter illegally through the southern borders. So far, 3,819 Salvadorans have applied for political asylum visas. None had been approved as of June 1, the last date for which statistics are available. By that date, 18 requests had been denied, according to the INS.

Various groups, such as the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and some members of Congress have suggested that the State Department approve an "extended voluntary departure" measure for Salvadorans. Such as measure would allow Salvadorans to live and work in this country until the civil strife in their country subsidies, and free both the State Department and INS from having to rule on each asylum case. b

In the past, the State Department has approved such a policy for refugees from Nicaragua, Uganda and Lebanon at times of turmoil in those countries.

"While civil strife and violence in El Salvador continue at distressing levels . . . public order and public services, while under serious attack, are still maintanained," the State Department wrote to Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Subcommittee Inter-America Affairs.

Caught in this predicament are thousands of people such as Antonio, who says he came here hoping for asylum after he was threatened by Salvadoran authorities for helping to organize an antigovernment labor union and a health care plan for Salvadoran railroad workers.

By the time Antonio decided to enter the United States illegally last year, he said two of his close friends active in El Salvador's trad union movement on their bodies that indicated they had been tortured. Several of Antonio's union colleagues had been killed earlier or simply disappeared "with no questions asked," he said.

Then, one night, Salvadoran "authorities" came to his house in La Union looking for him shortly after several of his union friends were rounded up in a truck "never to be seen again," he said. Antonio said he wasn't home at the time and went into hiding as soom as he learned of the visit.

In May 1980, Antonio, a slender man with dark expressive eyes and a skin as taut as leather, decided it was safer to leave his wife and five of his six children and support them by working in the United States than to stay in El Salvador. His oldest son already had entered the United States on a legal tourist visa and is now living and working here.

Antonio paid $1,600 to a Salvadoran "coyote," or smuggler, to get him a tourist visa to Mexico where he entered the United States through the Baja province into California. He declined to let his real name be used in this story for fear of reprisals against his family in El Salvador.

"We cannot accept the reasons" given by the State Department to deny the Salvadorans asylum, said Juan Mendez of the Washington Lawyers' Committee. "This is not just a question of whether the trains in El Salvador run on time. People are being taken out of their homes and shot."