Last October, shortly after he had taken over as acting director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, David Crosland flew to New York where he expected to be met at the airport by local INS officials.

No one showed up.

So Crosland called the main number of the New York INS office to let them know he would catch a cab into town to meet them.

No one ever answered the phone.

For an exasperated Crosland it was but one more example of the kind of problems he had inherited in an agency that had developed a reputation for being antiquated and inefficient. Recent revelations that the FBI suspects two INS officials of using their positions to provide favors illegally have only served to heighten Crosland's concern about how INS operates.

"I had a little bit of an advantage in having been here as INS general counsel for 2 1/2 years" before taking over in October, he said in an interview yesterday. "I had experienced some frustration as head of an operating unit in getting some things done."

While "we've made some quiet but substantial improvements in the way we operate," he said, the problems run deep.

"A lot of agencies have constituents," he said. "Our constituents [immigrants and foreigners] don't vote. Many of them don't. That may have had something to do with the level of [presidential and congressional] support in the past," he said.

Compounding the problems of getting enough money to run INS -- the agency's 10,000 employes watch this country's long borders and monitor the millions of aliens here -- have been the opportunities for INS employes to take advantage of their positions.

"There are large numbers of employes in this agency, as opposed to a lot of other federal agencies, who have . . . contact with people who desperatedly want either to stay in this country or get in this country," he said. "So there is an opportunity for an offer of some sort of bribe that exists here that doesn't exist in agencies that don't have that sort of contact.

"There is big business in smuggling [persons in illegally] and a commensurate big business in fraudulent documents comes with the people who are smuggled in," he said.

The INS image was tarnished most recently by revelations from the two highly publicized FBI undercover operations, ABSCAM and BRILAB.

In ABSCAM, eight congressman have been identified as having had possibly improper contacts with undercover FBI agents posing as Arabs. In at least seven of those alleged instances, the congressmen reportedly either were offered or accepted money in return for helping or offering to help the phony "sheiks" with immigration problems. The only criminal charge out of ABSCAM thus far is an arrest warrant charging an INS inspector in New York with bribery for a similar offer of help in return for cash.

In BRILAB, undercover FBI agents posed as insurance agents seeking assistance with state government contracts. In the course of that probe, FBI investigators reportedly discovered an alleged plot in which the former No. 2 person in INS, Mario T. Noto, offered to help reputed New Orleans organized crime boss Carlos Marcello with his immigration troubles, sources said. No charges have been filed in that case, which is still under investigation.

Organizational problems, caused by what he feels is partly an undermanned agency faced with a herculean task, have plagued the INS more and more in the last 15 years.

After 1965, he said, the number of people coming to the United States increased dramatically. Through the early 1970s, INS "seemed to strain and manage. But from the early 1970s, things started breaking down. We weren't able to act quickly enough" to handle the increased load, he said.

"To give an example of New York," he said. "We sent up a new . . . trial attorney. We found that the mail had not been opened [in that office] for six months. The mail had not been opened for six months I suppose because they figured they were trying to catch up on their backlog."

Along the borders, the situation is even more critical, he said. Last week he visited Chula Vista, a California border town visited by many illegal aliens coming into the country.

Crosland's car stopped by an INS car that had stopped another car with "nine [illegals] in it and six people waiting to get in," he said. "While we were waiting there, we shined the light around this embankment . . . There were 15 more people sitting down waiting to be picked up [by smugglers.] [An associate] walked down the road. There were 16 more waiting to be picked up there.

Crosland said he has tried to streamline the upper levels of the agency to combat those and other problems. "I think in places we've been top-heavy," he said. "In the commissioner's office, there were, I think, 14 positions, 10 of whom were special assistants. I've cut that down to one (and) three secretaries." The empty slots were reassigned to undermanned areas.

He also has moved to cut some of the agency's paperwork, asking Congress to do away with provisions that require aliens to register by mail with the INS every January, or bring two witnesses to testify to their good conduct when they apply for American citizenship.

Crosland, a former Justice Department civil rights attorney who left to practice law in Georgia for six years before joining INS in 1977 said he also has asked for legislation that would enable INS to confiscate vehicles that are used to smuggle illegals into the country, an authority it now has to some degree.