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Central Americans who want political asylum in the United States, but know their chances are slim under a new policy, say they will wait in hiding in this border city until they can cross the Rio Grande and elude federal agents.

The number of Central Americans bothering to apply for asylum has plummeted since last week when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service toughened its stance on political asylum applicants. The INS reported it processed 233 asylum applications Tuesday, the first day of the get-tough procedure, and only 19 were processed Friday; over that period, three were granted asylum.Border Patrol officials say the Central Americans are hiding wherever they can until they believe they can cross illegally into the United States.

"We think they're just lying low, maybe at hotels in Matamoros, with alien-smugglers or with sympathizers," said Silvestre Reyes, chief of the Border Patrol's McAllen sector.

At a Catholic Church-run shelter named Casa Juan Diego, dozens of Central Americans talked about why they fled their homelands and about their long, difficult journeys during which they were robbed and were forced to beg for rides and food.

They also asked about the new INS rules, under which asylum petitions can be denied in one day and the applicants then jailed pending deportation, and how difficult it would be to reach destinations like Los Angeles, Miami or New York.

"I don't know what we're going to do, but we'll find a way to cross, no matter what the cost is," said 21-year-old Nicaraguan Marta Salcedo, who arrived Monday with five other Nicaraguans.

"We don't want to go back to our own country. We'll be killed because we are viewed as counter-revolutionaries," she said. "We'll get to the other side somehow."

But U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley say getting past them is going to be tough. More than 125 agents have been sent to the district, bringing the total to 500. And they're all working 12-hour shifts.

Ms. Salcedo, whose father was an officer in the Anastasio Somoza regime that was overthrown by the leftist Sandinistas, fled with her family to Guatemala in September 1987 and began her journey to the United States earlier this month.