Jaime Sanchez stood at the edge of a crowd that poured into the lobby of the Salvadoran Embassy when it opened one recent morning. The 17-year-old restaurant worker was among many who had come for documents letting them return to the homeland they had fled just a few years earlier.

Like an increasing number of immigrants from El Salvador living in the Washington area, Sanchez had made a cold-eyed calculation: "Being here and back home is almost the same."

Officials have estimated that of the approximately 60,000 Salvadoran immigrants living in the Washington area, most are here illegally and do not qualify for the limited amnesty granted by the new federal immigration law.

Since the new law took effect there have been reports of Salvadorans losing jobs and having trouble finding housing. Social service agencies report seeing more Salvadorans who need food and other assistance.

As a result, some Salvadorans have apparently decided that life here is not materially better than in their homeland, despite the civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. The trend is reflected in applications for documents that would allow reentry into El Salvador, as well as a reported sharp increase in sales of one-way airline tickets to El Salvador.

The returnees, particularly those who fled for political reasons, face an uncertain future. The U.S. State Department and some human rights groups have reported that the political killings that caused so many to leave El Salvador have abated somewhat, but extensive civil strife continues.

The new immigration law offers amnesty only for those who have been in the country since Jan. 1, 1982. Most Salvadoran immigrants in the Washington area, as well as most nationwide, arrived after that date and do not qualify, according to experts.

Officials at the Salvadoran Embassy estimated they have received three times as many applications for passports this year as they received in 1986. Since January, an average of 700 Salvadorans a month have come to consulates around the country to get provisional passports, the permission slips needed to get back into El Salvador.

July 13, nearly a dozen Salvadorans were waiting to apply for provisional passports when the embassy, located on California Street NW in the Kalorama neighborhood, opened at 9:30 a.m..

"There are mixed feelings. Some of them are very glad to go back," said Salvadoran Ambassador Ernesto Rivas-Gallont. "They came to the U.S. thinking it was something next to heaven -- that jobs were so abundant that all you had to do was to stretch out your hand to get a job."

For Jose Carranza, the new immigration law is both a blessing and a bane. He said he qualified for amnesty under the new law and came to the embassy to get a permanent passport to prove he is eligible to stay in this country under the new law. He said his brother, who has been here three months and does not qualify, must return to El Salvador.

"For the ones who qualify for amnesty, the new immigration law is good," Carranza said. "But for those who do not qualify, the new law is bad because that means that they have to return home."

Airline company officials in Washington said they have seen a dramatic increase in the number of one-way tickets being purchased to El Salvador. Jeanette Rivera, assistant manager at Twentieth Century Travel, a firm specializing in Central American trips, said sales of one-way tickets used to be rare, but since April she has sold $60,000 more in one-way business to EL Salvador than during the same period last year.

At TACA Airlines, one of two airlines in Washington that offer flights to El Salvador, ticket sales for trips there have doubled over last year. "People are scared," said Gloria Granilla, a Washington district sales manager for TACA. "They are losing their jobs, that is what it is."

Granilla said that since March her company has sold between 100 and 200 one-way tickets a month at TACA's ticket office here, which serves clients from as far as Baltimore and Philadelphia. The company decided to add a new flight to meet the increased demand, she said.

The impetus for the decision to return home is seen through local social service agencies, which report an increase in the number of Salvadorans needing assistance. Agency officials say they are seeing increasing numbers of Salvadorans who have lost their jobs, as employers become nervous about provisions of the new law calling for sanctions against those who hire undocumented aliens.

Employers do not face any sanctions for illegal immigrants already on the payroll, but confusion over the law's provisions has nevertheless led to dismissals, service agencies report.

"I think it is a crisis situation," said John Curry, director of Casa De Maryland in Takoma Park. Curry operates one of a handful of centers that offer food assistance to Salvadorans. The center already has experienced an 800 percent increase in the number of familes who have come in for food donations.

"A lot of people who have lost their jobs are having difficulty finding new jobs, and a lot of people are just scared. They don't know how long they are going to make it," Curry said.

At Dulles International Airport, Carlos Rey sent off his three daughters, ages 15, 13 and 10, to El Salvador because they do not qualify for amnesty under the new law. He said he was afraid school officials would ask for social security numbers or other documents and discover his children are undocumented.

But Rey said he qualifies for amnesty, and hopes to bring the girls back into the country "when I fix my papers."

Jaime Sanchez said he came here three years ago wanting to become a building engineer, and ended up getting a job in a local restaurant. His family wants him to stay in the United States to avoid being pressed into military service back home, he said. "The situation there was bad, and I would have probably ended up going to war if I had stayed," he said. Nevertheless, he was at the embassy getting his papers to go back home.

He said he believes that unemployment, and eventual deportation, are inevitable.