Hundreds of Salvadorans, many expressing confusion and frustration, gathered in the cold yesterday outside the Washington center that was opened to process their applications for temporary legal status.

By 9:30 a.m. yesterday, about 200 illegal Salvadoran immigrants, some of them mothers with babies, were waiting in an open courtyard outside the Indochinese Community Center at 16th and Corcoran streets NW. The center is serving as the processing office for walk-in applicants from the District and Northern Virginia.

Many people waited for hours, some after having waited fruitlessly all day Tuesday, the first day of operation.

"I waited all day, for nothing," Vilma Campos, of Falls Church, said yesterday afternoon. Campos and the other Salvadorans had gathered to submit applications for what the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service calls temporary protected status. The congressionally mandated program allows undocumented Salvadorans who have not qualified for amnesty political asylum or other benefits and lets them apply to live and work in the U.S. legally for 18 months.

Immigration officials said they want this walk-in approach to replace a system, operating for several weeks, in which applicants mail in forms and receive dates for interviews at three processing centers in Alexandria and Arlington. As many as 50,000 people in the Washington area are believed to be eligible for the program. Many fled El Salvador, seeking refuge from war and poverty.

While there are long lines at the Indochinese Community Center, the center in Baltimore is running smoothly, said Rita Soler Ossolinski, acting director of the D.C. Office on Latino Affairs.

"It's incredible. More than 100 people waiting outside for hours in sub-freezing weather," she said.

Many people were simply confused. In the chill morning air yesterday, two Salvadoran women clutching babies stepped out from two big, meandering lines of people yesterday to talk to a federal immigration official on 16th Street NW.

Immediately, several other Salvadoran men and women surged forward over and around ropes toward William Gilligan, acting deputy district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Okay, everybody outside the sidewalk," Gilligan said politely but firmly.

Judith Cortez, of Falls Church, said she had arrived at the center Tuesday morning, application in hand, and waited all day without being seen. She came back yesterday. Officials, she said, had announced that they would process first those, like herself, who had signed up on lists Tuesday.

But there was a problem. "They can't find my name on any of the lists," she said in Spanish. In the meantime, Cortez said, people who arrived after her were being processed. "There's no order," she said.

Nancy Bruns, an INS spokeswoman, said a number system would be initiated today. She said the center has issued about 350 temporary legal residency cards in two days, and plans call for INS officials to process about 150 people a day at the site.

The temporary clemency is available to Salvadorans who entered the country illegally before Sept. 19. The program requires that applications, which include a $110 filing fee per person, be made by June 30. Renewals, also costing $110 per person, are to be made at six-month intervals up to 18 months.