Ayuda, a nonprofit organization in Adams-Morgan that has provided free legal services to the local Hispanic community for more than 15 years, is redirecting many of its resources toward helping the spate of illegal aliens who have come forward to apply for permanent resident status offered under a new federal law.

The law, which went into effect in May, allows undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since January 1982 to apply for permanent resident status, the first step on a road to citizenship.

Since March, Ayuda has helped more than 600 people apply for legalization with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Shelley Jones, volunteer coordinator at the agency. To accommodate this flood of new clients, Ayuda has hired an extra lawyer and paralegal, and doubled its volunteer staff from 25 to 50, Jones said.

The rest of Ayuda's staff helps local Hispanics with consumer law, tax law and other immigration-related issues.

But Ayuda's newest and biggest challenge remains the amnesty program. Ayuda's bilingual amnesty volunteers, many of them lawyers and law students, guide clients through an application process that is complex for English-speaking lawyers and bewildering to some applicants.

"We straddle the fence between the aliens and the government and expedite each client's application process," said Dominic Pastore, an amnesty counselor at Ayuda. "Most of our clients, partly because of the language barrier, have difficulty understanding what the INS requires of them."

A recent scene at the INS legalization center in Arlington, where applicants from the District and Virginia must apply, illustrates the role Ayuda staff plays.

The legalization center, a large room lit by harsh fluorescent lights, consists of a waiting area and an impersonal set of stalls for the applicant interviews. Many of the immigrants who waited to be interviewed were nervous, intimidated because they did not speak English well, and apprehensive about confronting La Migra (the INS), an organization they have long sought to elude.

In one of the booths, Pastore and Ayuda staff attorney Felix Toledo assisted a client, a grandmother who paid a man $1,000 to help her and three family members cross the Rio Grande into the United States five years ago.

The woman had to present records that proved her residence in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982. As with most of the applicants, Ayuda has spent many hours helping her locate such records. They have used almost anything: old leases, employment records, utility bills, rent receipts and even postmarked personal letters.

Collecting these papers has been difficult for her, as it has been for many illegal aliens, because she had discarded many of her records to elude the INS.

The examiner was dismayed because the woman presented photocopies of her W-2 tax forms rather than originals. He hinted that would adversely affect her application.

The applicant, who speaks little English, looked confused.

Pastore stepped up to the examiner right away. He was unabashed in his attempts to humor the examiner. He cajoled and smiled. Finally, the examiner relented, saying the copies should not be a problem.

"I try to get them {the examiners} to smile as much as I can," Pastore explained.

Besides helping the applicants avoid becoming ensnared by subtleties in the law, Pastore and Toledo must do a lot of translation. The INS provides only one translator at the legalization center through which hundreds of applicants pass each day and the language barrier between clerk and applicant can become a source of friction that often seems to threaten the success of applications.

"The people doing the examining have a lot of power," Toledo said, and at each booth in the legalization center applicants who could be seen appeared tense and worried. "It can be a war of nerves."

For many of the applicants from this area, most of them from El Salvador, the tensions of dealing with the INS must seem relatively minor in contrast to the other hardships they have endured.

One man, who identified himself only as Alfredo, said he left El Salvador in 1980 in response to death threats he received for his involvement in a teacher's union. He carried with him a list cut out from an El Salvadoran newspaper, El Diario de Hoy, of more than 200 pro-union teachers who had been murdered during the time before he left.

Once Ayuda's clients had passed the examination of their documents, they relaxed and waited for their pictures to be taken for their work authorization cards. The language barrier was no longer such a source of frustration.

When the photographer told one woman to pose staring at a certain picture on the wall to her right the woman only stared back at her, looking puzzled. The photographer pointed toward the picture and the woman looked at the picture and then back at the photographer. She was still confused. Amid laughter, some of the applicants who had had their pictures taken shouted to her "Mira la cuadra alla!" (Look at the picture over there.)

The woman laughed, grateful for the translation, and looked at the picture. Even the exasperated photographer laughed.