Jose and Maria Del Cid say they must choose either to live with their children or to live in the United States.

The Del Cids, illegal aliens from El Salvador who now move from place to place in Northern Virginia, said recently through an interpreter that they are afraid to come forward and claim their two oldest children for fear the whole family will be deported.

Texas authorities have held the Del Cids' two oldest children -- a daughter, Juana, 16, and a son, Luis, 14 -- since they were caught entering the country on Nov. 21. The children, along with their younger brother, Alvaro, 11, were on the last leg of a bus trip that began in El Salvador and was to end in Washington, according to their parents.

"I sweated and saved to get the money to bring them here," said their father, as he sat in the living room of a friend's house, wearing a black and orange Baltimore Orioles jacket. "I just don't want them back in that country where they will be killed."

The Del Cid case is seen by some as a battle of wills between the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Sanctuary Movement, which for the past three years has provided aid to refugees fleeing from Central America to the United States.

Yesterday, the INS confirmed that a warrant has been issued by a federal judge in Texas for Maria Del Cid's arrest. She is wanted as a material witness in the trial of Jack Elder, a leader of the Sanctuary Movement who has been indicted in Texas for allegedly helping Salvadorans -- including the Del Cid children -- enter the United States illegally.

On Thursday, he was acquitted of similar charges in an unrelated trial.

"This case is completely political," said Lee Teran, a Texas immigration lawyer who works with refugees, of the holding of the Del Cid children. "INS will tell you that they can't just give a kid up, but they will use any pressure they can to deport Salvadorans. If those kids were Cubans they would be with their parents right this minute."

INS officials deny the charges and say the case is typical of many handled each week.

"These people left three young children in a war zone and came to the United States without them," said Duke Austin, an INS spokesman. "We don't have open borders here, and we cannot just release these kids unless we are certain that their parents are here. If they come forward, we will give them their children and allow them to litigate their case, just as we would with anyone else."

The Del Cids' battle to have their children returned to them has been complicated, not only by the parents' refusal to give themselves up to INS officials but also by the seeming reluctance of the Reagan administration to grant asylum to Salvadorans. In 1984, only 503 of 13,501 Salvadoran applicants received asylum in the United States, according to Austin.

Last year, the INS apprehended almost 19,000 Salvadorans who were in this country illegally. It returned 3,890 of them to El Salvador. Those numbers have helped convince the Del Cids that their case would not be looked on favorably, according to their attorney, Patrick Hughes.

Last week, the government indicted 16 Sanctuary activists in Tucson, including Elder, for their alleged roles in bringing Salvadorans into the country from Mexico. Federal immigration officials contend that Salvadoran aliens are running from the poverty of their homeland and do not deserve special consideration, but Sanctuary activists claim that violence and war are what really bring them here.

The Del Cid family comes from La Union, in southeastern El Salvador, where the father worked on a coffee plantation until the battles in his village became so frequent that it appeared certain he would be inducted into the army. That was when he fled.

For a while, his wife remained with the children and other relatives, praying that the war would stop. When the situation worsened, she came north to join her husband and help raise the money to send for her children.

Del Cid heard earlier this year that his oldest son, who he says is named Luis but who gave his name as Hugo to officials of the Texas Department of Human Resources, was about to be drafted at the age of 13. He immediately sent his children $1,200 to make the furtive trip by bus across El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

The U.S. government's Extended Voluntary Departure program prevents the deportation of aliens to any country that federal officials decide is too dangerous for the aliens to return to. Currently, those countries are Poland, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Uganda. Sanctuary activists contend that the Del Cids and others like them would be hurt if they returned to El Salvador, and that El Salvador should be covered under the program.

"It is just amazing to me to see the way the U.S. is violating the 1980 Refugee Act," said Ruth Chojnacki, an activist in the Sanctuary Movement who is currently in Washington.

Sanctuary members say that the government has a moral responsibility to admit refugees from Central America because they are leaving their countries as the result of what the 1980 Refugee Act refers to as "a well-founded fear of persecution." The State Department, which monitors the act, has said that there has never been a documented case of persecution of a Salvadoran who has been deported from the United States.

INS officials deny that there is any political factor involved in the Del Cid case. They also say it has nothing to do with any move against Sanctuary, which claims the support of more than 1,000 church congregations throughout the country.

Although the INS has said that the agency's apprehension of the Del Cids' children and the indictment of the Santuary Movement members are not related, calls concerning the Del Cids' situation were referred to the same assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the Sanctuary defendants.

The two older Del Cid children are now legally in the custody of the Texas Department of Human Resources in McAllen. Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene A. Guerra has refused to turn the children over to a temporary guardian authorized by Maria Del Cid. The 11-year-old was released by Texas authorities because of his age, and last week flew to Washington where he was reunited with his parents.

Mrs. Del Cid has spoken by telephone to the other children in Texas and says she believes they are being well cared for. "It's just the sadness of being without them that hurts me," she said. Her husband said he fears he will never see his oldest son again if Luis is returned to El Salvador.

According to David Reyes, the lawyer who represents the Texas Department of Human Resources in the case, "I cannot let anyone but the mother or father claim the children because, for all practical purposes, these children have been abandoned by their parents. I have to ask myself, 'Do we actually have a parent here or don't we?' "

By doing their agency's job in cases such as this one, some INS employes say they realize they look bad in the eyes of many Americans. "Let's face it," said one INS official who asked not to be named, "nobody likes the idea of separating families or holding children in custody. It is emotionally difficult to swallow, but it is the law, and without the law the situation in Texas would even be worse."

The Del Cids are only two of 500,000 undocumented Salvadorans living in the United States, according to INS estimates. The father, who arrived in 1981, said he works in construction and at odd jobs. The winter is his toughest time, he said, because he can find work two days a week at most. Since early December, when the INS started looking for them, the Del Cids have moved around the area, staying with a variety of Salvadoran friends in Northern Virginia.

Mrs. Del Cid came to the United States a year ago and has a full-time job as a baby sitter and nanny in the Washington area, working six days a week, she said.

The Del Cids say they are grateful for their precarious freedom in the United States even though they miss their home and the extended family they left behind. Both say they have not grown used to the cold winter, nor have they been able to overcome the confusion caused by their inability to speak English.

Both said late last week that they would come forward rather than see their children sent back to El Salvador. But they remain convinced that if they do one, the other will follow.

"It's a hard life here," said Mrs. Del Cid, "but I can work. There is no shooting, no battles, no death. For me, there is no choice. I want to live in peace."