Elinor Scott, an illegal immigrant from Panama, has spent months piecing together a paper trail to prove she has lived in the United States long enough to qualify for amnesty under a landmark immigration law. She is about ready to give up.

"This is so difficult," said Scott, 38, a Langley Park resident who has worked for dozens of employers in three cities during the past 11 years. "I almost feel like not doing it."

Recently, Scott went to Adams-Morgan to look for a small Greek restaurant where she had worked as a kitchen helper in 1980. She hoped to get a letter to prove she had been an employe there. But the restaurant had been torn down, and a new bank building stood in its place.

For Scott and thousands of other illegal immigrants, the task of obtaining documents to apply for amnesty often appears insurmountable, according to social service workers, immigrants and advocates of the amnesty program.

The issue has sparked protests from Hispanic and other ethnic groups and set off a national debate over a possible extention of the amnesty law. With less than five months remaining in the amnesty program, social workers say they are encountering a growing sense of frustration and procrastination among some immigrants who are eligible for legalization but have not applied.

Under a measure passed by Congress in 1986, immigrants who came to the United States illegally before Jan. 1, 1982, may qualify for amnesty if they have lived here continuously since then. The amnesty program began in May and is scheduled to last one year.

Critics have charged that rules adopted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to carry out the program have imposed excessive requirements on applicants. Under the regulations, immigrants must obtain letters from employers, rent receipts, utility bills, bank statements or other documents as evidence of continuous residence.

INS officials say they have received more than 1 million amnesty applications and expect another 1 million to be submitted before the program ends. Critics contend that far more immigrants should qualify for amnesty.

The lowest response has come from the Northeast region, officials say. Recently, only 88,422 applications, or 8 percent of the total, were reported to have been submitted to the agency's Northeast region, which includes New York City, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston.

Almost 60 percent were from California.

Contending that too few immigrants have applied and that the INS has been too slow in sending out approvals, Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading advocate of the immigration bill, and 16 other House members recently introduced legislation to extend the program for another year.

"We thought that the best way for people to come into the offices of the much-hated INS was for them to see friends and relatives with {temporary residence} cards," Schumer said. "That's been slow in happening."

According to a national survey of 475 illegal immigrants in October, 30 percent said they had not applied for amnesty, and most of these described obtaining documentation as the major obstacle.

"Most of these people are not accustomed to leaving a paper trail," said Hector Orci, president of La Agencia de Orci, a Los Angeles public relations firm that conducted the survey for the INS. "For others the sheer task of collecting the documents is just too much."

Other factors cited in the survey included confusion about how to apply, lack of money for fees and fears that family members who are ineligible for amnesty may be deported.

In the Washington area, similar problems have been cited. The Rev. Kevin Farrell, executive director of the Spanish Catholic Center of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, said his social service agency has about 500 amnesty applications that cannot be submitted to the INS because of missing or incomplete documentation.

"Quite a few {immigrants} come in and start {the application process} and that's it," he said.

Fees required under the amnesty program have drawn criticism. The INS rules provide for application fees of $185 per person or $420 per family. In addition, applicants must pay for physical examinations and may be charged fees for obtaining photographs, fingerprint cards and documents.

"There is a group out there that doesn't feel compelled to apply," said Charles Kamasaki, a policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, an immigrant rights organization. "They are probably thinking, 'Why pay the $185, get a medical exam and take time off work just to apply?' "

"Some are postponing applying until the last minute," said Jorge Cuadros, a lawyer at Ayuda Inc., an Adams-Morgan legal aid clinic for Hispanics that is handling about 600 legalization cases. "They are not in a hurry if they have good jobs."

Illegal immigrants who fail to apply for amnesty may face deportation after the program ends. Nevertheless, social workers say, some immigrants appear reluctant to apply because of fears about dealing with the INS, concern over possible claims for back taxes and other factors.

Critics have complained that legalization offices have required widely varying amounts of documentation, with some offices requesting extensive proof of residence and others seeking significantly less.

In October, the federal agency moved to simplify the legalization process. In a letter, INS associate commissioner Richard Norton told legalization officials that "voluminous amounts of documents are not necessary."

"The inference drawn from the documents provided should depend not on quantity alone, but on the reliability, credibility and amenability to verification," he added.

The INS plans to spend $7 million to advertise the amnesty program this year, more than double what it spent last fiscal year, in an effort to reach more immigrants, officials say.

Many immigrants cite documents as a key problem. Leonel, a 23-year-old Wheaton resident who asked that his last name be withheld, has spent months trying to get a letter from a former employer in Houston to prove he worked in this country between 1980 and 1983.

During those years, Leonel said, he was paid in cash. He lived with a brother in Houston, he said, so he does not have any rent receipts or utility bills. He wrote to his former employer, but received no reply. When a sister went to the former employer's home, she discovered that he had moved to Georgia and left no forwarding address.

"I can't get the letter and there's nothing I can do," said Leonel, a Salvadoran immigrant who works as a landscaper.

He said he decided to apply for amnesty a few months ago when employers began asking him for proof he is authorized to work in this country. Under a provision of the 1986 immigration law, fines may be imposed on employers who hire illegal aliens.

Before then, Leonel said, he had been afraid to approach the immigration service because INS agents had detained him in 1984. He was released after paying a $3,000 fine, he said.

"I thought if I came forward and applied for legalization, the same thing would happen again," Leonel said.

On a recent afternoon, Funke, a 32-year-old native of Nigeria who asked that her last name not be used, stopped by a social service agency in Takoma Park that helps immigrants file for amnesty to drop off a few final documents.

She said she had waited to submit her application partly because she needed to save money to pay the fees and partly because she wanted to see what happened to applications filed by three friends.

"I was scared," she said. "But once I see somebody who gets {a temporary residence card}, then I said, 'I am going, too.' "