By Tim Gaynor
(Reuters) - U.S. policing along the Mexican border discriminates against Hispanics and Native Americans and contributes to the deaths of illegal immigrants, according to a study by the human rights group Amnesty International USA.
The report, titled "In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southwest," identifies what it says are systemic failures of federal, state and local authorities to enforce immigration laws without discrimination.
"Communities living along the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly Latinos, individuals perceived to be of Latino origin and indigenous communities, are disproportionately affected by a range of immigration-control measures, resulting in a pattern of human rights violations," the study said.
The U.S. government has tightened security along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,220-km) border with Mexico in recent years, adding additional fencing, surveillance technologies and Border Patrol agents. The federal government also has partnered with some state and local police forces to give officers immigration-enforcement powers.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of federal immigration authorities, disputed Amnesty International's findings as based on flawed information.
But the U.S. Justice Department recently accused the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona of engaging in systematic racial profiling against Latinos in its efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
The Amnesty study said federal immigration programs that operated in conjunction with state and local police put "Latino communities, indigenous communities and communities of color along the border at risk of discriminatory profiling."
It also found that indigenous peoples whose lands and communities straddle the border are "often intimidated and harassed by border officials for speaking little English or Spanish and holding only tribal identification documents."
Tightened policing efforts, meanwhile, "increasingly jeopardize individuals' right to life" by re-routing migrants "to the most hostile terrain ... including crossings over vast deserts, rivers and high mountains in searing heat."
The report said that from 1998 to 2008, as many as 5,287 migrants perished while trying to cross the border. Reuters could not verify the figure independently.
Amnesty urged the U.S. government to suspend all immigration enforcement programs pending a review and ensure that its border policies and practices do not have the "effect of leading to the deaths of migrants."
Last year, arrests of migrants slipping north over the border illegally from Mexico dropped to 327,577, their lowest level since 1972, when President Richard Nixon was in office.
A Homeland Security Department spokesman, Matthew Chandler, said the report's finding were based "almost entirely on either outdated information or anonymous anecdotes that can be neither investigated nor resolved."
Chandler said the department "takes allegations of racial profiling and civil rights and civil liberties violations seriously and has processes in place to immediately investigate and take appropriate action as needed."
"The department has worked hard to create a culture where all people are respected and treated fairly and within the bounds of the law," he added.
Moreover, Chandler said, the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue team "has saved the lives of countless people, including illegal immigrants, in the harsh conditions of the Southwest border" since it was founded in 1998.
He said the Amnesty study did not offer "thoughtful, actionable recommendations for improvement but instead calls for the wholesale suspension of immigration enforcement programs nationwide."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)