IT WAS ALWAYS feared that the liquidation value of the bankrupt-Latin Investment Corp. would be a great deal less than the cash taken in from the 3,000 Spanish-speaking immigrants who thought they were dealing with a bank. That dreadful possibility now appears to be a fact. Those unfortunate depositors who entrusted Latin Investment with an estimated $6.5 million in hard-earned savings now face the distinct prospect of recovering only 25 cents on each dollar of deposit. This bleak news comes from bankruptcy trustee Murray Drabkin, who along with volunteer professionals has been combing Latin Investment's income-producing properties and businesses, including the LIC-owned El Latino newspaper, to identify items of value that might be reduced to money for the depositors. Even collecting $1.5 million or so will require some fancy footwork and aggressive collection efforts by the accountants and lawyers assisting the bankruptcy trustee, given the depressed state of the real estate market and the uncertain nature of some of Latin Investment's loans. But they are pressing on -- and also keeping up the pressure on the owners -- to extract as much as possible for the victimized depositors, whose situation only grows worse.

Deprived of their savings, some are facing eviction or are crowding in with others in already overcrowded facilities. Many can't meet emergency food costs. Many had also saved to purchase tickets home to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, where they were to initiate the necessary paperwork at the American embassies to legalize their status in this country. Their travel money went along with the demise of Latin Investment. But their dreams need not disappear. The Wilson Community Center, which has been helping from the start, has created the Depositors Relief Fund, which is a source of emergency support for immediate needs such as shelter and food. In addition to managing this fund -- which is kept in an account at a District commercial bank -- the Wilson Center is accepting donations of clothing and food. An outpouring of support by concerned citizens in this area would send a reassuring and much-needed message to the depositors that they don't stand alone.

It is not a stretch to say that thousands of Latin Investment's depositors are now in serious jeopardy, since they lack access to safe haven for their earnings. Today, they are among this city's most vulnerable residents. Their immigration status makes it almost impossible for them to open a deposit account with a chartered bank. Does this mean that until they satisfactorily settle their documentation problem they must remain walking victims in our city? Cannot a safe alternative be developed during the interim -- an intermediary they can trust to receive and keep their savings -- until this is sorted out?