Sustained by two hours of sleep and armed with five folders of documents, Gilda and Luis Castillo began their tense journey to amnesty from the parking lot of a social service center in Takoma Park yesterday.

By 6:30 a.m., the Castillos, their four children and about 25 other illegal immigrants were on board a blue van bound for the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Baltimore.

By 4 p.m., the Castillos, who are from Guatemala and live in Silver Spring, had obtained their much-coveted red cards, small documents that give illegal immigrants temporary permission to work in this country -- the first step to becoming a legal resident.

The journey of the Castillos and the other illegal immigrants from Central America was guided by the Spanish Speaking Community of Maryland, one of the 500 social service agencies nationwide that are offering personalized service to amnesty-seekers, including help with filling out their applications, translation service, and advice on what documents they need.

The work of this agency is reflective of the important role that many social service and religious agencies are playing in the month-old immigration amnesty program that has already issued more than 33,000 temporary work permits nationwide.

"They have close contact with the illegal community, and we think the {illegal immigrants} would be less reticent to make contact with the {voluntary} agency than with the INS," said immigration service spokesman Duke Austin, explaining why the INS decided to let voluntary agencies play an integral role in the amnesty program.

Also, some of the agencies, such as the Spanish Speaking Community, which is run by Cuban-born Emilio Perche Rivas, 66, offer a more personal touch.

Yesterday, when the Castillos were short $105 to pay the $185 application fee for their 18-year-old daughter Amarilis, social worker Hector Martinez gave the family his MOST card and bank account number to provide an instant loan.

"He is very understanding and very patient. He has helped us a lot," said Gilda Castillo, a housekeeper in Washington. "This process puts us through a lot of psychological pressure because of the agony of worrying, of not knowing if you are going to get {amnesty} or if they are going to make you leave."

"It's good for these people to have some support," said Martinez, 24, a Salvadoran immigrant, as he shepherded the applicants from window to window at the legalization office. "I like them," he said simply of his reason for lending the the money to the Castillos, who were awake much of the previous night working on documents and because they were nervous.

In addition to driving immigrants to Baltimore every Tuesday, Martinez helps translate and offers moral support through the exhausting process that involves interviews with several immigration officials.

The amnesty program was begun May 5, and it has received up to 4,000 applications a day recently, a substantial increase over the 500 a day officials were getting at the start of the program.

Six agencies in Maryland, 11 in Virginia and 18 in the District are helping immigrants collect the documents they need to prove that they have lived in this country since 1981.

Immigration officials say the voluntary agencies are performing a yeoman's task by explaining the application process to immigrants, telling them what documents they need and how to obtain them, and deflecting applicants who do not qualify.

After the immigrants receive their temporary work authorization cards, their applications are reviewed at an INS regional center. Six months later, if they are accepted for the amnesty program, they receive temporary residence cards. And 18 months later they can apply for permanent resident status.

The agencies are allowed to accept no more than $75 a person and are reimbursed $16 a person by the federal government. The Spanish Speaking Community charges $65.

The Baltimore legalization office, which serves the state of Maryland, is getting between 40 and 50 amnesty applicants a week. Since May 5, it has granted temporary work permits to about 350 people and has recommended that 42 immigrants be denied amnesty. Most of the denials were issued because the immigrants had come here on some type of visa that made them ineligible, said Louis Crocetti, deputy director of the INS Baltimore district office.

The Arlington legalization office, which serves the District and all of Virginia, has granted temporary work permits to about 500 people and is processing about 50 applications a day.

Rivas of Spanish Speaking Community said that of about 80 immigrants whom his agency had helped in the effort to obtain amnesty, only one has been rejected.

At 6:15 a.m. yesterday, Rivas said, he was at the front of his office on Piney Branch Road, pen and paper in hand, to keep a count on the number traveling to Baltimore. By 6:30 a.m., about 30 illegal immigrants, some from El Salvador, Ecuador, Iran and Guatemala, had collected and were ready for the 40-minute trip to Baltimore.

This was the second trip for Ana Martinez, 35, a Salvadoran who has worked as a maid and housekeeper in the Washington area for past 10 years. A week ago, she started to cry when the INS rejected her because she was missing a letter from her most recent employer. But this time around she got her temporary work permit.

"I'm so happy," she said, smiling broadly and showing off her red card before sharing pictures of her two children, a 17-year-old boy who attends Blair High School and a 13-year-old girl who attends Takoma Park Intermediate.

Miriam Oliva, 35, from Guatemala said that now that she has a temporary work permit she plans to look for a better job with "a company" where she can receive health insurance benefits. She said she works three jobs now, as a housekeeper, baby sitter and office maintenance worker.

"This is marvelous," she said of her new status. "This means a lot to me. It's a big step forward."