When Paul crossed the border from Mexico into the United States, he came prepared.

Along with some money and food, he brought a complete new identity, including a Social Security card and other identification he had purchased to make the transition in a new country easier.He used the card to obtain jobs. But when he qualified for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and had legal status in the United States, he was in a quandary.

If he got a new - legal - Social Security card, he would lose the work credits he'd already earned over several years. And he'd have to change his number with his boss, which could be embarrassing and possibly have legal ramifications.

A little-known amnesty provision included in the budget Congress passed in October has solved the problem for Paul and thousands of formerly illegal aliens like him.

Under the provision, legalized aliens who have used false documents to get a Social Security card, or who used a fake card, will receive amnesty from prosecution if they stop by Thursday, Jan. 3, according to Oscar Robison, field representative for the Social Security Administration.

Without the amnesty, misuse of a Social Security card could be punished by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The amnesty will not protect people who buy or sell the cards for profit or who make counterfeit cards.

With the amnesty, legal aliens will be able to have their work records corrected.

"Those who have qualified for legal status and are qualified to get real Social Security cards can come into the office and have the information corrected on their earnings records," Robison said. "They can receive the credits they earned using other Social Security numbers" and increase future benefits.

The amnesty provision does not state a deadline for fixing erroneous records, he said - as long as the cards were not used fraudulently after Jan. 3.

The Social Security Administration's Denver office said that as many as 2.5 of the 3.1 million people who applied for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 could be affected by the Social Security card amnesty provision.