When Luis Garcia got married in his Mexican hometown two years ago, he thought he might have a little trouble getting a visa for his wife to come live with him here in the Washington area.

But Garcia, a legal resident of the United States since 1965, was stunned to learn just how slowly the wheels of immigration turn. It would take six or seven years to get a visa for his wife, he was told, and during that time she would not be permitted to visit him in the United States.

So Garcia (not his real name) did the only thing he felt he could do under the circumstances: he brought his wife across the border illegally.

Garcia and his wife are but two of tens of thousands of people who have had to come to terms with restrictive American immigration quotas that, while ostensibly designed to unify families, have kept them apart or forced them to break the law to be together.

Today, Garcia and his wife live with their 8-month-old son -- a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born here -- in a recently purchased suburban Maryland home filled with new furniture, a large stereo and pictures of their wedding. But the tranquil scene is deceptive, for Garcia is convinced that his wife will be discovered one day and deported.

"I knew there would be a problem," he said recently as he changed the oil on one of his two cars. "But we have had to learn to live with a bigger problem."

Demand for the 290,000 immigrant visas issued annually worldwide by the United States has gotten so high that this month, for the first time in memory, all spouses, sons and daughters of legal foreign residents here -- who are supposedly in a highly "preferred" category for admittance -- face a delay ranging from five months for European applicants to eight years for Mexicans, according to State Department documents.

The backlog faced by Mexicans has become a factor in strained U.S.-Mexican relations, according to recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and also contributes directly to the increasing flow of illegal Mexican immigrants -- such as Mrs. Garcia -- into the United States.

More that 48,000 Mexican husbands, wives, sons and daughters of legal residents of the United States -- a handful of whom live in the Washington area -- currently are waiting for visas. "Most of them," according to Vernon D. McAninch, the official responsible for issuing visas at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, "are already in the U.S. illegally. If they can't go legally, they go illegally."

"We're in the worst shape of any country in the world" in the second preference category, McAninch said. "It's just another thing that encourages further illegal immigration . . . It's quite clear that the present immigration law is not coping with the problem."

So pressing is that particular backlog that a Senate committee is holding hearings into a bill introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (d. Mass.) that would increase the number of visas allocated to Mexico and incidentally, Canada. But many, including some Immigration and Naturalizaton Service employes embittered by laws that cast them in the role of heavies, say such changes would not go far enough.

"We say that basic immigration policy is to reunify families," said Michael G. Harpold, president of the union that represents immigration employes. "Well now, everyone knows you can't reunify your family if you're from Mexico, India, China -- most of the countries of the world, as a matter of fact.

"Maybe you can understand, when we tell people in the immigration service that the national policy is to reunify families, it's a lie," Harpold said.

The problem is not limited to Mexicans, however. Under the complex U.S. system of awarding visas to individuals based on their family relationships to U.S. residents or citizens or the individual's job skills, the brothers and sisters of American citizens fall into a low preference category.

As a result, several Chinese-American families in the Washington area must wait as long as six years before their brothers and sisters from mainland China can come to the United States.

Particularly difficult is the problem faced by the Liu family in suburban Maryland. Earlier this year Chan Kwan Liu, the 62-year-old brother of Shi Chuen Liu, a Langley Park restaurant owner, finally won permission to leave China.

But when Chan Liu arrived in Hong Kong in March with his wife and youngest child (the other two children did not qualify for American visas and had to remain behind), he discovered that it would be five to six years before their visas would be issued.

Now his brother Shi Liu, an American citizen, must send about $500 a month to Chan to support his stranded family in Hong Kong, where they may have to wait for years before they can come to the United States.

"My uncle Chan quotes an old Chinese saying all the time now," said Hung Kai (Teddy) Liu, who runs his father's restaurant here. "He says, 'The crows are black anywhere around the world.' That means governments are just as bad everywhere. But I tell him, the law is the law." g

The history of American immigration laws is checkered at best. No serious attempt was made to regulate immigration here until 1875, when Chinese contract laborers were barred from entering the United States. Then, about the time of World War I, quotas were developed that relied, among other things, on pseudo-scientific "findings" that more that 80 percent of the Russian, Hungarian and Jewish immigrants of the time were "feeble-minded."

It was not until 1952 that Congress removed race as an expressed criterion of immigration. Not until 1965 -- in the wake of the domestic civil rights movement -- was discrimination on the basis of national origin ended.

After 1965, a quota of 170,000 visas a year was set for the Eastern Hemisphere, from which no country was allowed more than 20,000 visas in any one year. The Western Hemisphere was alloted 120,000 visas annually with no national limitations. As a result, by 1976 Mexicans were accounting for half of the Western Hemisphere quota for immigrant visas.

That ended abruptly in 1977 when the 20,000 visas-per-country limitation was extended world-wide. Overnight, Mexico's quota was cut by two-thirds.

Since then the wait for visas by Mexican families has doubled and trebled, frustrating State Department officials and posing grave problems for enforcement of existing quotas along the almost 2,000-mile-long Mexican-American border.

Al Velarde, an official with the U.S. Catholic Conference, which helps Mexicans with immigration problems in El Paso, says that thousands of Mexicans faced with the eight-year wait for visas are taking the same course followed by Luis Garcia and his wife.

For Garcia, the issue is both economic and personal.

"I came here because there are better opportunities here," said the 28-year-old construction worker. "I was 14. My brothers lived here. One was in the Army. I asked them to bring me in and they did."

He worked as a restaurant dishwasher and floor mopper -- "the kind of jobs Americans don't want" -- and then in 1973 he moved from Los Angeles to Washington.

Five years ago on one of his rare visits to his home state of Durango in Mexico, he met a girl and fell in love. "I was tired of being alone, you know? I wanted a family," he said.

So in November 1977 he married -- and then discovered the awesome wait his wife would face before she could get a visa.

"I decided to bring her in illegally," he said as he sat in his living room while his wife tidied up and tended their baby. "It was real easy. I went right to the border and someone walked up to me and said, 'You want to get your wife across?'"

It cost him $150. He left her with the "Coyote" -- the name given to men who smuggle illegals into the United States -- and thirty minutes later picked her up on American soil.

Today he lives a lifestyle he could not afford in Mexico, he said. "I make $400 a week here. I'd make $80 a week doing the same work in Mexico," he said.

Garcia has lived here long enough to become an American citizen, a move that would cut the waiting time for his wife to move to the United States from years to months.

But like many other foreign nationals in the same situation, he is reluctant to take that step. "I'm proud to be a Mexican, proud to be a human being," he said.

"My wife thinks if I become an American citizen, I'll never go back to Mexico," he said. "Of course, that's not true. But I have to explain that to her. Right now, I don't know what I'll do."

He paused as his son intently tugged at his father's lips. "I'll go back if she's deported," he said. "I figure it this way: I'm going to live with my family. It's more important to me than anything else."