Lesbia Rocque and her three children hitchhiked from Nicaragua, carrying with them nothing but hunger and hope.

At the end of the three-month odyssey, launched by a military summons for her 12-year-old son, the family waded across the Rio Grande and asked for asylum at a rural barbed-wire-encircled government compound - America's new Ellis Island.Instead, they were rejected, then arrested.

After resigning his Nicaraguan government job over differences with the Sandinistas, Ramon Aguirre tried to open a business in Managua, but the government shut him down.

Unable to sleep, unable to feed his wife and daughter, Aguirre and his family headed north, only to be robbed three times in Mexico and arrested at the U.S. border where they, too, asked for asylum as political refugees.

Now the Aguirres share a pale green 12-by-12 foot room with another Nicaraguan family at a converted government agriculture warehouse, where aliens do their wash on stones and children line up for juice from Red Cross workers usually dispatched to natural disasters.

"I didn't think it was going to be like this. I can't go back - they'll kill me," Aguirre said through a translator. "I don't know what's going to happen to us."

What is going to happen?

After months of a massive influx of Central Americans and weeks of wrangling over changing U.S. policy on how to handle them, that question remains unanswered, though officials see a few certainties: the human flood will continue, possibly underground, and it will strain local areas' ability to provide for the newcomers.

As many as 100,000 Central Americans may enter the United States this year, officials say. Most wade across the Rio Grande, where clothes, letters to God and even an unused airline ticket can be found on the grassy banks, left behind in haste or happiness.

They seek a new life in a new land, sometimes following a dusty road to Casa Oscar Romero, a church-run shelter, sometimes never making it past the river's edge before arrest by the Border Patrol.

After a policy change last week, they most often end up living in detention, either under Army-green tents surrounded by barbed wire at a military-style base, or at the converted warehouse, where children play in the yard, fathers line up to use the single pay phone, mothers try to fight off boredom and uncertainty.

Some spend the chilly nights huddled under blankets in a shabby old shed with red plastic walls on two sides.

Refugees seeking political asylum - more than half of them Nicaraguans - were at first turned loose while their applications were processed, free to join friends and relatives in Miami or Los Angeles, New York or Houston.

In December, the Immigration and Naturalization Service restricted the asylum-seekers to south Texas, but that produced a squalid squatters camp.

Now, aliens are given a single interview that can be as short as 10 minutes and, after being denied asylum the same day, they are arrested and held on $1,000-$4,000 bonds pending appeal.

At the end of last week, more than 1,000 were being held at two INS detention barracks here in the southern tip of Texas.

The turmoil created by this eight-month-old influx is widespread, even contributing to the racial tension in Miami that exploded in riots during Super Bowl week.

Local officials here and in Miami complain they can't provide homes, jobs and schooling for this newest migration wave. Problems with the shifting and sometimes contradictory policies, as well as feeding and clothing the people detained here, continue to mount as federal officials scramble to enforce an asylum law drafted in 1980 to accommodate 500 applications, not 100,000.