Illegal aliens have been striking against citrus growers here, demanding higher wages and better living conditions.

The walkouts are described as the start of a movement to organize undocumented farmworkers throughout the citrus Sunbelt.

Representatives of the illegal aliens have also demanded that the U.S. Justice Department investigate charges that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol mounted "retaliatory" raids against the illegals for participating in the strikes.

Officials of the Maricopa County Organizing Project (MCOP) served the demand on U.S. Attorney Mike Hawkins in Phoenix after huddling with the most Rev. James Rausch, bishop of the Catholic diocese of Phoenix, to warn him of a "warlike atmosphere" in the citrus groves where the undocumented workers are camped.

A 10-minute videotape was shown to Hawkins and Rausch detailing what MCOP leaders said was the aftermath of raids on illegal aliens' encampments.

"What the tape showed is a great deal of destruction of food, clothing and of their crude shelters," prosecutor Hawkins said. "The charge is that the Border Patrol is responsible for the malicious destruction."

The growing public struggle began Oct. 3 when more than 200 citrus workers, all Mexican nationals illegally in the United States, went on strike for five days at the 5,000-acre Arrowhead Ranch near Phoenix. One of the ranch owners is Robert Goldwater, brother of the Republican senator.

Another 70 aliens refused to pick citrus fruit for five days at the nearby Fletcher Ranch the following week, and more strikes are planned, organizers say.

"So the aliens are finally coming out of the closet," said a surprised state political leader sympathetic to the laborers' position. "It's going to be a long, hot winter."

For MCOP, which has intimate but unofficial ties to the powerful United Farm Workers Union, the immediate goal is to organize the estimated 6,000 illegal aliens who pick virtually all the lemon, grapefruit and orange crop in central Arizona.

Although the organizers' tactics borrow heavily from the Labor unions, leaders say they are not attempting to form a union of undocumented workers.

"We aren't interested in contracts and unions," said Jesus Romo, 29, the articulate administrator of MCOP. "We were founded in May here in El Mirage as a private organization designed to improve the wages and the living conditions of all field workers. We are more a civil rights organization that a labor union."

Romo said the MCOP problems may be unique in the history of labor or civil rights.

The workers they seek to organize are typically undereducated, non-English speaking - and outlaws from the moment they leave Mexico for what is to many a 200-mile walk north across barren desert to the ranches of central Arizona.

Moreover, to illuminate their grievances, the aliens had to protest publicly. That meant exposing themselves to easy capture by the Border Patrol and a free bus ride back to the border. Yet Romo claims more than 1,000 undocumented farmworkers have been organized.

The fear of capture was allayed somewhat when organizers posted lookouts to watch for "La Migra" - the Border Patrol - along ranch roads where workers demonstrated during the strike.

And the the raids did come starting the day after the strike began at Arrowhead Ranch, strikers resorted to more familiar tactics.

"The contingency plan was implemented," said Romo. "They ran."

Despite the lookouts and the legendary elusiveness of the aliens, MCOP estimates that "since Oct. 3 a total of 240 citrus workers at the ranches with disputes have been picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in these retaliatory raids."

The strikers are directed partially at influencing sensitive current negotiations on the alien question in Washington and Mexico City. "They know there are plans being made that will affect their lives," said Romo. "And they want to be a part in that decision."

The aliens who walked out of the groves in Maricopa County demanded $3 an hour, up from $2.20. MCOP also requested latrines, showers and medical care.

In addition, the aliens sought an accurate method of accounting for the hours they worked and the bags of citrus they picked. Today, if a worker is paid by the bag, he personally tallies each one by depositing a stone or a leaf in his pocket. Romo says unscrupulous supervisors have routinely shortchanged the workers.

MCOP also demanded advance warning of irrigation and insecticide spraying, because the workers literally live under the trees they harvest.

Another request, that all food the growers sell to workers be purchased from chain stores instead of markets owned by the growers, where prices are substantially higher.

Romo said some MCOP demands were met. Arrowhead installed some latrines in the groves, and reportedly increased the wage per bag from 54 cents to 80 cents, he said.

Agreement does not necessarily mean acceptance. Citrus growers have refused to talk to the press since the first days of the strikes. But their representatives have been openly critical of MCOP, and privately they accuse it of being merely a front for the United Farm Workers Union.

MCOP is headquartered in office space rented from the UFW. And the director of the UFW in central Arizona is on the MCOP board of directors.

"We have no official position on MCOP," said Daniel Morales, UFW field director for Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties. "We are watching if with interest."

The MCOP effort ultimately may work against the illegal aliens they currently are attempting to organize, some critics have charged.

"If the wages for picking citrus are up, and growers are forced to pay out for toilets in the grove, housing whatever, then it will remove the economic advantage to hiring the aliens," said a citrus industry official who asked not to be identified.

Romo's responses: "It's terrible work. The citrus trees have thorns. You have to climb a ladder to pick and haul around a heavy bag. The nature of the work, along with the low wages, is what drove resident farm workers away from citrus in the first place."