Like many children in Canada in the years after World War II, James Hunter wanted to play baseball.

Because his parents were communists, they signed him up with the National Federation of Labor Youth League, the youth wing of the Communist Party. But Hunter said he was never more active in the group than "playing in left field" or writing a sports column for the club's newspaper.

Over the years, Hunter became active in the non-communist trade union movement, eventually rising to become president of the International Transport Workers Federation, with 4 million members around the world. He traveled widely, making dozens of trips -- "more times than I can remember" -- to the United States.

Last February, a few months after shaking hands with President Bush at a Washington meeting, Hunter, 58, was stopped at the U.S. immigration desk in Toronto on his way to catch a plane to a labor gathering in Florida. His name appeared on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) computer that lists hundreds of thousands of people whom the U.S. government has tagged as unsavory because they have been linked to communism or doctrines that can be considered anarchistic or totalitarian.

INS officials said they do not know why Hunter was stopped this time after so many uneventful crossings, except that Canadians do not require visas and are not often screened that carefully.

But because he had once belonged to the "subversive" youth organization, an INS agent told Hunter, he would have to ask the U.S. government for special permission to enter the country. Under a recent change in visa law, a waiver from the U.S. ideological exclusion list is granted as a matter of course once a request is made.

Hunter refused on principle.

"The country of the free and the brave wouldn't let someone into their country who played ball on a baseball team 35 years ago with some communists," Hunter said. "Bizarre is the best way to describe it."

Un-American is the way many civil libertarians describe the "Lookout List," a Cold War vestige that they say serves only to make the United States look fearful and petty in an era in which democracy seems to be spreading across the globe like wildfire.

"The ideological litmus test is counter to everything that this country is supposed to stand for," said David Cole, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

The list, formally the NAILS (National Automated Immigration Lookout System) book, has been a source of controversy for years, resulting in the barring from U.S. entry of world-famous authors and politicians such as Graham Greene, Carlos Fuentes and Farley Mowatt.

The INS oversees the list, although the bulk of the names come from the State Department, which maintains a separate lookout book.

Besides ideological affiliation, the 33 specific reasons for being put on the list include posing a threat to national security or being a convicted criminal.

Under a recent change in law, no one can legally be denied a U.S. visa because of ideology. But all applicants still must answer the question of whether they are, or have ever been, a member of a communist or communist-affiliated organization.

The seeming contradiction is a source of dispute between the revision's author, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and the State Department over whether the amendment fundamentally overhauls the McCarran-Walter Act, the 1952 law that allows the United States to bar foreigners because of what they believe or may have once believed.

Moynihan's intent was to rid the visa process of any ideological disclosure, but the State Department maintains that it still has the authority to inquire about any applicant's political beliefs as long as he or she ultimately is let in.

"The {McCarran-Walter} law really hasn't changed," said Philip Covington, the State Department's spokesman for consular affairs. "We are entrusted with implementing that law and that is our job. Until it changes in ways that are more substantial . . . we are not able to be more generous {in granting visas}."

INS spokesman Duke Austin said, "The statute still exists, but we are required by Congress to grant a waiver."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who has introduced a bill that would further blunt the ideological teeth of McCarran-Walter, charged that the Bush administration's stance on visas is a cheap way to head off right-wing criticism that it has gone soft on communism.

"I think the law is pretty clear," he said of the recent changes. "It makes no sense {to issue waivers}. I think it's fear of the right wing."

Moynihan recently asked the General Accounting Office to examine the State Department's compliance with the law, which also requires the government to purge the lookout list of all names listed for ideological reasons.

That hasn't happened, according to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which recently received a censored version of the 370-page list after suing the government under the Freedom of Information Act.

Calling it "a dangerous legacy of a discredited era," committee lawyer Arthur C. Helton said the book contains at least 345,000 individuals, the vast majority of whom were listed by the State Department for ideological reasons. A person can ask to be removed from the book if he or she was forced into membership, or can show five years of active opposition to communism or other proscribed doctrines, according to the statute.

Names can come from any source, such as a foreign government or U.S. embassy or agency, although U.S. officials said the information is checked; the person listed is not notified.

Helton said two-thirds of the listings, which date to 1904, were added in the 1980s, with more than 4,000 individuals put into the book in the first three months of this year -- after several congressional efforts to make the visa process more open and during a period of easing international tension.

"The Cold War is alive and well in the State Department," he said.

The State Department will not discuss details of the list, even the number of names. "We don't know," spokesman Covington said, adding that some individuals were barred for more than one reason and appear on the list multiple times.

Passed over the veto of President Harry S. Truman in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act was changed in 1977 to permit banned persons to appeal, in compliance with the Helsinki Accords adopted as international human rights law that year.

In 1987, Moynihan's amendment stripped the law of its ideological content, but because the change was part of the 1988 State Department authorization bill, additional legislation was required to keep it from expiring.

When the provision was made permanent in February, conservatives led by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) watered it down so that its extension of constitutional rights applies only to visitors -- not permanent residents or those applying for permanent status. The theory behind the change was that while almost everyone should be allowed to visit the United States, not everyone should be allowed to live here.

Enter Fouad Rafeedie, a Jordanian national who has lived in the United States since 1975. INS officials detained Rafeedie, a permanent U.S. resident, upon his return to the United States from a trip to Syria in 1986 and accused him of being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which he denies. The INS decided to deport Rafeedie.

(Seven Palestinian and a Kenyan living in Los Angeles also are fighting deportation for allegedly belonging to the PFLP, one of the most militant factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization.)

Rafeedie, who lives in Cleveland, is still wrangling with the INS in federal court here. The agency is seeking permission to adjudge Rafeedie's deportation hearing itself, without having to disclose its evidence against him; Rafeedie is asking for the explusion proceedings to be dropped.

"You and I as citizens have the right to challenge the information, but does an alien?" said INS spokesman Austin. "That is the question."

The government's answer is no.

Rafeedie's lawyer, Michael Maggio, maintains that such a presumption of guilt is unconstitutional.

"When you consider the noise we make, justifiably, about the control of movement in the Soviet Union, it's an outrage the laws we have," he said. "We don't let people stay in this country for what they think. It's totalitarian."

Critics also charge that a double standard of free expression exists for tourists and permanent residents.

"A foreigner who visits this country can advocate communism, or destruction of property, anything a citizen of this country can advocate, but a permanent resident, a person who has lived here most of their life, cannot," said attorney Cole. "That's a very serious flaw in this law."

Another flaw, according to immigration lawyers, is that the waivers can take several weeks to be approved, causing some people to miss conferences or speaking engagements.

One group that seems to run into this problem frequently is the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN by its initials in Spanish), the party of the former government of Nicaragua.

"Sandinistas as a general rule have an enormous difficulty in getting a visa," said Alejandro Bendana, a former Sandinista official who did graduate work at Harvard. Bendana said he was once denied a visa because he was told he violated a previous one by speaking at an academic forum. "More often than not, they won't deny, they just won't issue. You wait until you're blue in the face."

The State Department has special power to control visa applications from Nicaragua under a 1988 presidential directive that lets the administration bar any government official or FSLN party member from the country. Since the Sandinistas were voted out of office and turned over power to a U.S.-backed government 10 weeks ago, the policy has come under review and a source said it is expected to be dropped soon.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua, citing staffing shortages, is refusing to process visa applications for non-diplomatic cases, leaving in the lurch several Sandinistas with American speaking engagements, as well as anyone else seeking a tourist visa.

Former president Jimmy Carter recently appealed personally to the State Department to grant visas to some Sandinistas who were invited to speak at a forum at the Carter Center in Atlanta, according to Robert Pastor, a member of the Carter National Security Council staff and currently head of the center's Latin American program.

Even then, one ex-official's visa did not permit him to visit his daughter in Miami, which he had asked to do; another former official was denied a request to go to Washington and New York.

Covington, the State Department spokesman, said the United States grants visas only for specific reasons and that travel restrictions on them are consistent with those imposed by other nations and justified on national security grounds.

But critics said the technical aspects of the law are overshadowed by its philosophical implications.

"I don't know what people are afraid of," said Maggio. "It really displays a kind of fear of ideas."