SILVER SPRING -- Immigration agents arrested Julio Ramirez and 19 other undocumented workers recently as they looked for jobs at a parking lot here that has become an open-air hiring hall.
He and 12 others were charged with being in the United States illegally, and the employers who had picked them up face fines.
Two weeks later -- in the wake of the arrests of 13 other workers at the same place on the same charge -- Mr. Ramirez was out of jail on $1,000 bond and back on the lot at University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road, hoping a labor contractor would drive by and give him a day's work.
As he waited with other men seeking jobs, Mr. Ramirez, 24, said he was a little afraid of getting arrested again but more frightened of going home to Guatemala and its leftist rebels and right-wing death squads.
"They will kill me there," said Mr. Ramirez, who used a pseudonym. "They won't kill me" at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he said.
Other undocumented workers said they did not fear deportation.
"We aren't afraid because we know how to come back," said a 25-year-old Mexican, eliciting knowing smiles from a handful of men who waited with him for work on the lot, a gathering place for job-hunters for the past 2 1/2 years.
Despite threats of deportation for illegal aliens and fines for employers who hire them, the lot, the biggest pickup spot for undocumented workers seeking day jobs in Montgomery County, does a brisk business.
People seeking work also congregate at several other sites in the county, but none is as well established or patronized as the Silver Spring lot, which attracts employers from as far away as Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., seven days a week, construction contractors, homeowners and anyone else looking for temporary manual labor pull into the parking lot, where sometimes as many as 100 workers wait. The employers honk the horn of their pickup or Volvo and then haggle over wages with the workers, most of them undocumented aliens, according to INS officials.
"It's only for about three or four hours. It's not regular work," said Jim Vagner, as he loaded four laborers into his car to help him with yard work. "I think that the immigration law says that if it is regular work it is illegal."
The law, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, has deterred some employers.
Hiring day laborers "is just not worth" risking prosecution, said Edward Smith of J. R. Spencer Construction Co. of Camp Springs, who stopped by the 7-Eleven at the lot for a cup of coffee.
"If they got their green cards, fine, but I'd pay them by check, take Social Security out, workmen's compensation, and it's legal," he said.
Montgomery County police and INS officials said they had received complaints about the number of people who congregated on the lot.
Peerless Investment, the owner of the property, which houses the 7-Eleven, several other stores and an animal hospital, declined to comment. However, one merchant objected to the laborers' presence.
"I just don't like seeing them hanging out in front of the store," said Sam Garraway, manager of Duron Paints. He said he had caught some of the men stealing.
"They should set up a decent place for those guys," he said. "They want to work. They're making a contribution."
A local labor official also expressed some sympathy for the job-seekers.
"We certainly don't condone breaking the law, but on the other hand we're not angered about people trying to work," said Mike Dorsey, business representative for the Washington Building Trades Council.
Advocates for undocumented aliens cite the recent arrests as evidence that the immigration act fails to deter foreigners from entering the United States illegally in search of jobs.
The act is intended to discourage employers from hiring undocumented workers by fining them $250 to $2,000 for the first violation, and to send the message to would-be immigrants that they will not find work here.
Since June 1988, 38 Maryland employers have been fined, and more than 400 aliens arrested in Maryland have been deported, the INS said. They are among 70,000 illegal aliens deported nationwide in the past 2 1/2 years.
However, advocates for Hispanic aliens say the law misses the mark.
The undocumented workers "live in this country now," said Lael Parish, executive director of Central American Solidarity Assistance of Maryland, a non-profit group in Takoma Park that works with Hispanic aliens. "Taking away all of their options of making a living is really not making them go home."
The INS arrests at the lot have outraged advocates for illegal aliens in nearby Takoma Park.