They begin arriving at the Salvadoran Consulate in the cool, dusky pre-dawn of summer, clutching documents in one hand, some with a child in the other. By 8 every day, the line snakes around the block.
The office at 16th and P streets NW doesn't open until 8 a.m., but unless they are near the head of the line, there is not much chance of getting in to apply for a routine--but essential--passport renewal or a notarized identity card.
It's consular chaos: an understaffed, underfinanced office overwhelmed by its underserved clients. For the Salvadoran citizens, any visit to the consulate involves a long wait and, most likely, a day of work--and pay--missed.
Waiting outside on the sidewalk for hours one morning this week with his mother as she tried to get her passport renewed, Inmar Daniel Chavez, of Hyattsville, said he had made up his mind to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
"I want to be able to travel with an American passport and avoid all this," said Chavez, 29. "That's the only reason I want to become a citizen."
Maria de Hernandez, of Arlington, already had a backup plan. If she doesn't succeed in getting a new passport here, she'll go to the Salvadoran Consulate in Guatemala in August when she travels there on vacation.
"I can get it done over there faster," she said.
People in line voiced frustration and anger. "It's not like it's food--like pupusas--that you can go someplace else to get these documents," said Patricia Campos, president of the Salvadoran-American Organization. The consulate, she said, "should be prepared to serve that community."
That is the challenge newly appointed Salvadoran Consul Juan Antonio Acevedo Lara has pledged to meet for 150,000 Salvadorans, the Washington area's largest Latino population and, after Los Angeles, the biggest Salvadoran community in the United States.
One and a half months into his job, Acevedo is about to announce new, more efficient business practices. He is also searching for larger office space to move into--preferably a spacious site with its own ground-level entrance.
"I understand that people have a bad impression of the consulate," said Acevedo, an appointee of newly elected Salvadoran President Francisco Flores. During a campaign fund-raising trip to Washington in January, Flores promised to improve consular services.
Starting next week, the consulate will keep its doors open two more hours a day and will designate specific times for taking care of services such as obtaining visas and notarizing power-of-attorney letters. Appointments for passport renewal will no longer be obtained by showing up: People must fax, call or write for one. "Mobile offices" will travel to Virginia and Maryland to revalidate expired passports through Dec. 31, 2000, free of charge.
"With these measures, while we still have inadequate space, we will have some improvements," Acevedo said.
The consulate had been pushed out of its previous building because of neighbors' complaints. Now the new location--at 1424 16th St. NW--is under siege, too, said George T. Webb, a partner in Castleton Holdings, which owns the building.
In February, when frictions boiled over, about 100 people lined up daily inside the building. Toddlers roamed about. There was trash, damage to the hallways and even an arrest of one Salvadoran for allegedly assaulting a building employee. The altercation, Webb said, grew out of the man's frustration over not being served promptly by the consulate.
"The situation was untenable," Webb said. But he doesn't blame the Salvadorans who came to try to get their documents. He blames the consulate itself.
"The government of El Salvador has provided woefully inadequate services for the consulate to serve its constituents . . . both the space that they leased and the number of staff they provide," said Webb, who met several times with consular and State Department officials to try to work out a solution. "The money for equipment and phones is just terribly inadequate."
In response to complaints from some of the other 15 tenants, Castleton Holdings declared in February that only 50 people could wait inside the building, and only in the consulate's second-floor offices. It also hired a guard to monitor a lobby sign-in sheet.
Acevedo and Webb said they are negotiating a "mutual termination" of the five-year lease that the Salvadoran Consulate has with Castleton Holdings. Acevedo said that the move is his top priority and that he is considering three nearby sites.
CAPTION: Myrna Rodriguez, far right, is at the front of a line forming outside the Salvadoran Consulate about 7 a.m., while Jenny Garcia crouches beside her mother. Rodriguez and Garcia's mother are seeking passports.