In the past, when immigration agents visited Blackie's House of Beef in Northwest Washington it was to raid the restaurant for illegal workers and deport them.

A different mission recently drew immigration officers back to the popular downtown steakhouse, this time to explain politely to owner Ulysses G. (Blackie) Auger the procedure for complying with the nation's new immigration law, which imposes sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

"They have done a 360-degree turn," said Auger, whose restaurant at 22nd and M streets NW was the site of several well-publicized immigration raids in the late 1970s. "Now they come to visit you to have you work with them."

The information visits to businesses are part of an unprecedented public relations campaign by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to explain the new law to employers and get them to comply voluntarily.

A dramatic departure from the agency's past practice, the campaign has drawn criticism from some immigration lawyers and at least one member of Congress, who says the program is an overly ambitious misuse of 50 percent of the agency's already overworked investigative force.

The critics say that the plan not only will fail to achieve the goal of getting employers to comply with the law, but also will undermine the immigration service's traditional policeman's role of curtailing the hiring of illegal immigrants by finding them, usually in the work place, and deporting them.

The law, enacted in November, imposes fines of up to $10,000 and a six-month jail term on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. Employers also are subject to fines if they do not check every new employe's authorization to work in this country and fail to keep on file an I-9 form attesting that they have seen the documents.

The new law includes an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants who have been in this country since Jan. 1, 1982. The immigration service expects as many as 2 million persons to qualify for amnesty.

INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson has set a target of visiting at least one million businesses by June 1, 1988, when the warning period for employers who hire illegal workers ends and offenders can be fined.

Between Nov. 6, when the law was signed by President Reagan and mid-July, immigration service agents visited 93,000 businesses across the country. Locally, agents started their visits in June, contacting about 850 businesses in Maryland and 600 in the District and Virginia, officials said.

The critics argue that with more than 7 million businesses nationwide, the immigration service won't reach a majority of employers even it does achieve its target of 1 million visits.

"If they took every investigator and had him do nothing but {employer visits} they wouldn't be able to tap into 1 percent of the market place of employees," said Arlington immigration lawyer Samuel Jay Levine.

"What the INS is trying to do is soft-pedal employer sanctions to the business community," said D.C. immigration lawyer Michael Maggio. "They know the business industry is afraid of the sanctions and they are trying to make them more palatable."

Maggio and others question whether immigration agents who were formerly trained to track down illegal aliens will be able to adapt to their new role as salesmen for the new law.

"What ability do the INS special agents have to explain in articulate terms what the law means, when even some lawyers can't get it straight?" Maggio asked.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently sent a letter to Nelson criticizing his decision to deploy 50 percent of the immigration service's 700-member investigative force to visit employers. Immigration investigators, also called special agents, have focused in the past exclusively on pursuing alien smugglers and illegal immigrants who commit crimes and fraud in this country.

As of last November, the agency's investigative force had declined to the level of 700 agents from a force of 1,300 10 years earlier, agency officials said. The immigration service is hiring an additional 932 investigators to help enforce employer sanctions.

"In an ideal world it would be fine to have 1 million businesses visited by {immigration agents} but the INS is so stretched for resources that they should use other means of reaching employers," said Schumer, a member of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. He suggested that the immigration service target only employers who have been known to hire illegal workers.

But immigration officials said the public relations campaign is essential to help employers learn how to comply with the law, a contention that is supported by some business representatives.

"I think the information program that Nelson is embarking on is the right one," said Frank Toti, an official with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents 500,000 businesses that have an average of 10 employes. "Our members want to know what they need to do to comply. They do not want to break the law."

In addition to one-on-one visits, immigration agents supervised by a newly created employer and labor relations unit are giving speeches on the law to some major corporations, rotary clubs and local chambers of commerce.

The agency recently mailed an 18-page handbook to 6.6 million employers explaining the law, and has placed numerous advertisements in the media throughout the country.

Yet despite the intensive education campaign, continuing confusion over how to comply with the law is causing some employers to seek legal advice.

Arlington attorney Levine said that in the past several months he has received calls from 40 to 60 employers, some with as few as six employes and others with several hundred, seeking help in meeting the requirements of the law.

"I see the direction of immigration lawyers' practice going toward representing employers rather than "What the INS is trying to do is soft-pedal employer sanctions to the business community."

-- Michael Maggio

individual foreign people," Levine said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has responded to employers' questions about the law by producing its own 60-page booklet and employers already have snapped up 1,800 copies. With supplies of the first 5,000 printing dwindling rapidly, the chamber plans to print an additional 5,000 copies in a few months, said Fred Krebs, director of the employer relations policy center with the U.S. Chamber.

"We have a lot of people out there who are still uncertain about how to comply," Krebs said.

When immigration agent Harry Van Leuvan stopped by Paul Roeder's hardware store in Germantown on a recent hot summer morning, Roeder knew very little about the new law.

Roeder said he had paid scant attention to news reports when the law was passed last year -- and did not have on file the I-9 forms required for employes who were hired after May 31. (For employes hired between Nov. 6 and May 31, employers have until Sept. 1 to complete the I-9 forms.)

"I think a lot of small employers are like me, and didn't take {the law} very seriously," said Roeder, a Gaithersburg resident who has 15 employes at his Germantown Hardware Store, including his son, stepson, daughter-in-law and wife, who works there part time. "I was kind of drifting by thinking, 'I'm not on the Mexican border so why bother with this stuff.' "

But after listening to Van Leuvan explain how the sanctions will work and which documents employes must show to prove they are permitted to work in this country, Roeder said he intends to complete I-9 forms for all new employes.

"I'm going to comply because I normally do what the government requires me to do, but there's too much red tape for me to worry about," he said. "I've already been forced to hire an accountant and I may need a lawyer in the future."

Auger, the owner of Blackie's, said agents have already visited him twice to explain the law and have written him a letter asking to see his employes' I-9 forms. In the past, Auger twice sued the immigration service for using search warrants to raid his restaurant. The raids netted more than a dozen illegal workers, most of them from El Salvador, and many of them were deported.

This time, Auger said, he plans to cooperate fully with the immigration service.

He said that since Nov. 6 he has been requiring employes to produce proof they are permitted to work, and that several dozen employes have left since then on their own when they were unable to produce the required documentation. Such proof could include a U.S. passport, green card, Social Security card or driver's license.

In another sign of the times, some top immigration officials last week attended a dinner meeting of the D.C. chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association at Blackie's.

"When they raided me in the past I fought them on principle," Auger said. "But now there is a law, and I'm abiding by it."