A chilly autumnlike breeze greeted dozens of tired men who gathered at dawn yesterday to begin an unusual dance.

It's a dance of chance. The chance to work. To survive.

In this 7-Eleven parking lot, at Piney Branch Road and University Boulevard in Silver Spring, the men gather seven days a week, looking for work.

Their partners in this dance are the contractors and painters and private citizens who are looking for cheap, dependable labor.

The dance begins as soon as a vehicle drives up. The men stop in midsentence and shift their attention toward the driver. If the driver scans the crowd, the men's interest piques, because chances are better that this driver is not a store customer, but an employer -- and the men swarm toward the vehicle.

With luck, the driver stops, gets out and curtly describes the work, the pay and the number of men needed.

Then a split-second screening process follows and a few of the lucky ones find themselves climbing inside, more confident about the prospects of eating tomorrow or paying next month's rent.

"Most of the people here aren't {legally} allowed to work," said Ernesto Rodriguez, 33, from the Dominican Republic. "They're not stealing. They're not dishonest. They just want to work."

This simple desire has spawned dozens of these outdoor hiring halls. There are several smaller ones in suburban Maryland. Others are in downtown Washington and Adams-Morgan, and at several Northern Virginia sites.

For as little as $4 an hour, hundreds of immigrants with few skills and often a poor command of English circumvent traditional hiring practices -- and often the law -- for the opportunity to work.

It has not escaped the attention of Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities. They said the Silver Spring site, where as many as 150 men gather, is the largest in the state. Last month, agents twice raided this parking lot and arrested a total of 33 men. And using a weapon that a 1986 immigration reform law gave them, the agents also seized three vehicles belonging to employers, who now face sanctions for hiring undocumented workers.

"What we want to do is send a message to employers and to the community that the INS will use whatever resources it has at its disposal to prevent the illegal hiring," said Louis Nardi, assistant district director for investigations of the INS office in Baltimore.

That warning sparked concern among some community activists in the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area who maintain that it is "a moral outrage to persecute people whose sole crime is trying to work."

The activists, spearheaded by the social service agency Central American Solidarity and Assistance of Maryland, have called an emergency meeting tonight to discuss a community response to the INS raids. The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in the Takoma Park City Council Chamber, 7500 Maple Ave.

"There's a lot of confusion over why people are being arrested -- and why they shouldn't be," said Lael Parish, director of CASA de Maryland.

The debate is lost on the workers. Their only concern is survival.

"A lot of days, I don't eat," said a 25-year-old Mexican national who has been in the country nine months and is nervous about giving his name. "We can't do anything. We don't have papers."

The men gather as early as 5:30 every morning, some well equipped with Wellington boots and their own tools; others wear little more than shorts and T-shirts.

Some are as young as 16, and most came to this country alone.

The peak hiring occurs between 6 and 10 a.m., several said. Every manner of car, truck and van pulls up. Gene Adams, who is starting a tree-cutting service in Virginia, said he uses the laborers because they're dependable.

"I don't get into their personal lives," he said, when asked if he checks for work authorization.

That's what most of the men are banking on. Their conversations are generally about work. In one group of men, a newcomer to the country is learning about employment agencies where "you pay them money and they find you a job," he is told in Spanish.

Others talk about bleak prospects for work after the INS raid. On average, they can hope to find work three times a week, many said. Inevitably, with the talk of employment comes the talk of abuse.

"We had a job washing bricks for two months," said Santos, 30, a Salvadoran who did not want to give his last name. "And when we finished they didn't pay us."

Everyone, it seems, can pull out a tattered business card or a piece of paper with the name of a business, a boss and a phone number, all testaments to an experience in which they did not get paid.

But the worst experience is not finding work. By 10 a.m. yesterday, fewer than a dozen prospective workers waited. Most had found jobs. Others quit and went home.

"It's pretty hard when there's no work," said Hermalindo Isaguirre, 35, a Guatemalan who has been in the country a month. "Sometimes you can go a week without work -- and without eating."