Like many other Nicaraguans in the Washington area who have applied for political asylum, Alexandria construction worker Felix Mendoza believes a recent U.S. policy change could send him home to die.

On July 1, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials began notifying many of the Nicaraguans they will be deported because they cannot prove they would be persecuted.

Now that the Sandinistas are out of power, Nicaraguan expatriates no longer have anything to fear, U.S. officials say. But Felix Mendoza doesn't feel safe returning to the midst of the Sandinistas he left behind in December 1988 after a dispute with their leaders.

"For them, I'm a traitor," said Mendoza, 24, who asked for asylum a year ago. "There is such a strong feeling of {revenge}, not so much by the police, but on the part of my former colleagues. They could hurt my family, or just shoot me on the street.

"I would prefer to be in any jail in the U.S. than to be back in Nicaragua right now," Mendoza said.

Ten years of battling between the American-backed contras and the now-ousted Sandinistas sent as many as 600,000 Nicaraguans to the United States. A Nicaraguan Embassy official estimates that up to 7,000 Nicaraguans live in the Washington area, most of them in Arlington and Alexandria.

At the end of April, asylum applications from about 23,000 Nicaraguans were pending. Beginning in 1987, when Attorney General Edwin Meese announced a policy that said no Nicaraguan who had a "well-founded fear of persecution" would be deported, immigration officials simply stopped sending out letters notifying applicants that they were being rejected.

But now immigration officials are telling applicants that the special treatment is ending because the political situation in Nicaragua has changed. Some immigration lawyers have said they believe the government plans to turn down as many as 20,000 of the pending applications and send the Nicaraguans home.

"Any time conditions change in a country, those changing conditions will affect an application for asylum," said Duke Austin, an Immigration Service spokesman. "It's the consensus that things have substantially improved so that we can let the process go forward."

But many Nicaraguan refugees in this country say that even with a democratically elected government led by Violeta Chamorro now in power, the situation in Nicaragua has not improved enough for them to return home safely.

Marina Lopez, 40, of Falls Church, fled with her oldest son when he was drafted for the Nicaraguan army two years ago. She filed her application for asylum more than a year ago, but has heard nothing. She works as a nanny by day and cleans offices in Tysons Corner at night.

"I'm afraid of returning there," said Lopez, whose husband and two younger children remained in Nicaragua. "The government here ought to be a little flexible, and allow us to stay a few years longer, until the situation there becomes more stable.

"If I knew that I could go back in safety, with a stable political and economic situation, I wouldn't think twice about it," Lopez said. "Right now the Sandinistas still are organized. The government is not stable and the economy is in a total chaos."

Onofre Gutierriez, director of the Nicaraguan Catholic Community in Exile, an Alexandria group that provides financial support and counseling to the expatriates, said many local Nicaraguans want to return home, "but we don't want to leave if we have to go back there to suffer.

"Mrs. Chamorro doesn't govern the country," Gutierriez said. "The Sandinistas can still throw her out of the government in five minutes."

Immigration lawyers such as Samuel McTyre, who practices in Arlington, say their Nicaraguan clients are nervous about the change in U.S. policy.

"The new {asylum} claims are in trouble," McTyre said. "It's a raw deal for those who came here and started rebuilding their lives.

"On one hand, the American government is right. The conditions on which Nicaraguans based their political asylum claims have changed," McTyre said. "But whether they can go home and not face political reprisal and persecution is another matter."

The Nicaraguan government isn't so sure it wants its citizens to come home -- not yet, not all at once.

Nicaraguan Ambassador Ernesto Palazio said he recently told State Department officials his country is not ready for an influx of thousands of people, many of whom would be without homes or jobs.

"That would increase the strain on social services," Palazio said. "We're going through a very difficult time in Nicaragua. It would be politically convenient for the U.S. to realize that an orderly return is better for the economy of the country, as well as the Nicaraguans who will be going back there."

Immigration and Justice Department officials said a reduction in the number of Nicaraguans applying for asylum this year is a sign that conditions in their homeland have improved.

Another indication is the changing reasons that applicants cite for asking asylum, according to Henry L. Curry, director of the Asylum and Policy Review Unit of the Justice Department.

"In the past year, I've been seeing less instances of people claiming that they'd had their food ration cards withdrawn, or their business licenses withdrawn," Curry said.

"Most of the people who were applying for asylum {more recently} were doing so on the basis that they didn't want to serve in the military," Curry said. "But Mrs. Chamorro has done away with the draft."

Maria Vivas, 27, was a lawyer in Nicaragua. She now does administrative work for an Arlington doctor and lives with her husband, a deserter from the Nicaraguan army, in Falls Church. She said she feels fortunate that she was granted asylum before Chamorro was elected in February.

"I'm sad for all the Nicaraguans who are living here," she said. "They sold all the things that they had and came to this country. Most of them have a better life here.

"But now they're starting to tell them that their applications are being denied."