Undated (AP) _ Thousands of hopeful aliens, from domestic workers to a network TV newsman, picked up amnesty application forms Tuesday, but it was far from a stampede on the opening day of a yearlong federal program offering citizenship for illegal migrants.

Although as many as 100 applicants were in line at midnight in Harlingen, Texas, the few who appeared at the Immigration and Naturalization Service center in Arlington, Va., were nearly outnumbered by reporters and photographers. More than 1,500 applicants showed up at the INS in the Chicago area, said David Tabolt, an INS spokesman in Chicago.

''How do I apply?'' was the most frequent question, said Doug Brown, officer in charge of the INS office in Albuquerque, N.M.

''People will get courage when they see we are treating them humanely, with compassion, as they come in,'' said Richard Casillas, INS district director in San Antonio, Texas. ''The word is going to get out that we are not going to use this procedure to deport people.''

Those eligible for amnesty must have arrived in the United States before Jan. 1, 1982, and maintained their residence here continuously since then. The application fee is $185 per adult and $50 per child, with a maximum of $420 per family.

The INS estimates that 3 million people are eligible.

Among those picking up forms Tuesday was NBC News correspondent James Makawa, 27, who came to the United States in 1977 on a student visa from Rhodesia, which is now called Zimbabwe, and stayed after the visa expired that year. He joined NBC's Chicago bureau last year.

''It's been like living in a pressure cooker from day to day. You never knew whether the immigration van would show up,'' Makawa said. ''It's something you just kept to yourself. It's a living hell.''

In El Monte, Calif., the INS office had received only about 400 applications and ran out within 50 minutes. A computer breakdown delayed the first interviews at the office by half an hour.

''It's ridiculous,'' said Ruben Martinez of West Covina, who was among the first applicants. ''The first day and they don't have the forms.''

''There are bound to be some kinks in the system,'' said the office's main legalization official, Alfred Castillo.

Rigoberto Beltran, 25, a Salvadoran who has lived in the United States since 1980, arrived at the Tucson center at 6 a.m., expecting ''at least a few people.'' There was no waiting line.

''Thank God that we have been given this opportunity and that we will be able to know that we can stay here,'' said Gloria Marte, a native of the Dominican Republic who handed in the fist completed application at the INS center in Hialeah, Fla.

She said she has worked as a domestic since overstaying her visa nine years ago. INS supervisor Eric McLeod said the woman and her 16-year-old son might receive their work permits as early as Tuesday.

Director Richard Smith of Seattle INS office said he expected only 100 to 150 people to come in Tuesday.

''We were promised hundreds, we've seen tens,'' he said.

''In the beginning it will be a slow takeoff. They have been dodging us for years,'' said John Rebsamen, whose INS office in Decatur, Ga., handled about 50 applications by late Tuesday morning.

Jose Zeferino, 34, a native of Brazil, waited through the night for the INS office in Arlington to open. He had contacted a lawyer, who wanted $2,000 for his advice, so Zeferino decided to try the process on his own.

''I have all the papers they ask for,'' he said. But the four-page application form caught him by surprise; he said he hadn't realized he would have to complete it before proceeding.

The first alien to submit an application Tuesday was Danny Roden, 50, a house painter from the Philippines, who handed in his forms at an INS office on Guam, six hours before immigration offices opened on the East Coast.

''I felt completely relieved of worries and sadness,'' Roden said afterward.

Volunteer agencies - officially known as Qualified Designated Entities - offered help in completing the paperwork.

In El Paso, about 50 people protested with placards and red flags, saying the amnesty program is unfair to many illegal immigrants.

''We'd like an answer to what will happen to those who don't qualify under amnesty,'' said Josefina Zavala, a member of the United Border Workers.

Carlos Marentes, the organizer of the protest, said only a handful of illegal workers will qualify for amnesty.

''There's a lot of families who've been working here for years and won't qualify because they live in Mexico,'' Marentes said.

INS District Director Al Giugni said migrant farm workers are being considered under the amnesty provisions, although not every illegal alien will benefit.

''The law doesn't provide for every alien who walked into the country,'' he said. ''We've said we don't know the numbers that are going to qualify.''

In New York, 19-year-old Maria Alvarez posed Tuesday with her new temporary immigration card, surrounded by friends and relatives in an office festooned with red, white and blue banners.

''Now I can finally study and find a good job,'' said Ms. Alvarez, who said she came from El Salvador six years ago and now works part-time in a laundry. ''This is the beginning of a new life. I'd like to teach kindergarten some day. I am very happy.''