"To be legal is to live in peace," reads the small red sign in Spanish outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Legalization Office at 2990 S. Main.

For fewer than 7,000 previously illegal aliens in Utah, that sign is a comfort, expressing their release from an invisible prison. These are the people who have applied and received temporary work authorizations under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Some already have their temporary residence cards.

But for as many as twice that number, the sign is a bleak reminder that they must keep on looking over their shoulders if they want to remain in the state.

These are the people who did not apply for resident status under the 1986 law - no single reason explains why. Some clearly did not qualify. Some probably would qualify but couldn't produce the necessary proof. And some just didn't think the new law would make any difference to them, say workers for agencies helping to process applications.

Many Americans thought the story of the new law had ended May 4, when the deadline passed to apply for general amnesty.

Not so.

Although the door is closed on that program, which gives resident status to illegal aliens who can prove they've lived continuously in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982, for many aliens the deadline of interest is still ahead.

Nov. 30 is the last day when they can start the process to obtain resident status as "special agricultural workers," or SAWs.

The SAW requirements are much easier than the general amnesty ones. A person just has to produce an affidavit from a farmer saying he worked for the farmer at least 90 days during the year ending May 1, 1986, and the work involved an approved crop. Livestock, forest products and forage grains like alfalfa don't qualify. Fruits, vegetables and sugar beets do.

Because the SAW requirements are much more lax, fraud in that program is much higher than it was in the general amnesty program, said Meryl E. Rogers, officer in charge of the Salt Lake INS office. False affidavits are being sold by farmers or forged by applicants. Alan Speirs, the INS's chief legalization officer in Salt Lake City, said the suspected fraud rate has been as high as 80 percent on some recent days.

People are desperate, said Ricardo Alberto Castro, legalization director for the Utah Rural Development Corp., one of the private entities INS designated to help people with applications. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and all kinds of people are trying to show they worked at least three months in farming.

"You see people that will do anything - and I don't blame them - in order to remain here. They don't want to go back. There's nothing for them to go back to."

Castro estimated 5,000 to 10,000 of the undocumented aliens in Utah can't qualify for either amnesty or SAW. "Most of them, they're just waiting - waiting for a change in the system. They're waiting to be caught. They're waiting for any means of obtaining some sort of a document to be able to remain here."

Marco Antonio Tovar, Mexico's consul for Utah, Idaho, Montana and western Wyoming, said many people did go back to Mexico when the law first was announced. The consulate's Salt Lake office helped them arrange to take their belongings back without paying customs duty. But Consul Attache Francisco Olavarria said fewer went home than stayed.

Thus far, the law hasn't stopped illegal workers from coming to Utah, said Rogelio Garza, who works closely with migrants in his job as coordinator of a disabled farm workers program. But he thinks that if INS cracks down hard on employers, that could change.

Some critics of the new law, however, have called it unenforceable. "To think that INS is going to be able to enforce it is just ridiculous," said Silvia Pena, an attorney who does immigration cases in private practice and also works for Utah Legal Services. She said people will just use false documents.

Although the law makes knowingly hiring an illegal alien a crime and requires employees to show their bosses proof that they're eligible to work, it doesn't require employers to keep copies of the documents that workers present so the INS can check whether they're fake.

But Rogers said that despite such provisions and the Salt Lake office's limited staff of only five enforcement people, the law is enforceable.

And spokesmen at the agencies working with applicants predict the law will meet its goal of making it harder for illegals to find work, because most Utah employers will comply voluntarily.

Rogers said that up to now, the Salt Lake INS office has concentrated its enforcement on higher-paying urban jobs that citizens and legal workers might want. But after Nov. 30 the office will also focus on agriculture. Farmers succeeded in lobbying several special provisions for agriculture into the law, so they have no excuse for hiring illegals from now on, he said.

The Salt Lake office already has had six people, including two farmers, indicted on charges of helping illegals to prepare fraudulent applications. And the office has started proceedings to fine four employers for employing illegals and is reviewing seven more.

Jerry Ferguson, one of those indicted, is a subcontractor in charge of the legalization program at the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. He declined to discuss his own case but said that since the indictments, "Most of the farmers are getting very spooky. It just scared the daylights out of the farmers to the point where they're even denying that they ever had illegal Mexicans."

Anthony Lopez, director of Catholic Community Immigration Service, predicted the law will create even more exploitation of undocumented workers than in the past, since employers will feel justified in paying less because they're running a risk by hiring illegals.

Speirs, however, said the law should reduce exploitation of those who qualify for legalization, because they'll no longer face the threat of being tossed out of the country if they complain. And with employer sanctions, the INS now has a weapon against employers who run sweat shops using illegal labor.

While the agricultural workers hurry to file their first papers under the SAW program, many of those who filed 18 months ago under general amnesty are now able to apply for the second stage of that program - permanent resident cards.

For many second-stage applicants, the legalization process will include a return to school. To obtain permanent residence they must either pass a test in English and U.S. history and government or take courses in those subjects.

Brent H. Gubler, adult education services specialist in the State Office of Education, is allocating Utah's $125,000 chunk of the federal money appropriated for those programs. Instruction will be available from schools and agencies in several areas, but he worries that some people may not be reached.

Tovar worries that many people who made it through the first stage won't get permanent residence because they cannot pass the tests.

"We know that many people that work in the countryside have very little formal education. They don't know how to read or write even in Spanish."

Tovar has seen some happy results of legalization's first stage. The consulate, which during the law's early months was packed with people seeking birth certificates and other documents to qualify, is now filled with those same people going home to visit Mexico, assured they can get back into the United States.

Many people saw light at the end of the tunnel when they passed through the first stage of legalization, "but will this light continue?" the consul asked.

And he said a problem facing many families is that some members qualify for legalization while others do not. Some children, born here, are citizens. The INS has promised not to deport non-qualifying children during the application period, but these mixed families' final fate is still pending, Tovar said.

The lucky ones at least have their whole families together in the United States, but in many cases one or more parents is in the country while children remain in Mexico, said Olavarria.

Those who are embarked on the process of legalization and integration are fine people, said Speirs. It's been rewarding for him to see them come out of the shadows. "A lot of them are going to be very vibrant members of our community."

But what about those who didn't apply or won't qualify for legalization?

"They're not terribly different. They're all very hard workers _ the ones that are true farm workers and the ones that are well-established in the community. There are some in-between ones that may not have the best character."

But if the law works the way the government hopes it will, many of those people won't find work and will have to leave the country.

"That was a line that Congress drew," Speirs said.