Greyhound Lines Inc., the nation's largest intercity bus company, has threatened to fire employees who sell bus tickets to illegal immigrants under an internal policy that some Hispanic advocacy groups are calling an invitation to racial profiling.

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SAN DIEGO — Greyhound Lines Inc., the nation’s largest intercity bus company, has threatened to fire employees who sell bus tickets to illegal immigrants under an internal policy that some Hispanic advocacy groups are calling an invitation to racial profiling.

The “Transportation of Illegal Aliens” policy warns Greyhound’s customer service employees to beware of people in large groups, moving in single file and traveling with little or no luggage. It says other telltale signs include people “trying to hide or stay out of plain view” or large groups led by a “guide” who holds everyone’s tickets.

Greyhound also says immigrant smugglers give themselves away by calling bus stations to ask if immigration authorities are present, and by loitering, repeatedly buying large numbers of tickets for other people and using phrases like, “These guys just crossed the line,” “my cargo,” and “I’ve got to move my people.”

The policy warns that failure to comply could result in the employee’s firing and possibly arrest.

Kimberly Plaskett, a Greyhound spokeswoman, said she didn’t know how many customers have been denied tickets under the policy but called it a “pretty rare” occurrence. The Dallas-based company adopted the policy in 2002 in response to the criminal indictment of a now-defunct, California bus company that pleaded guilty to immigrant smuggling, she said.

The policy was largely unknown outside the company until La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles, reported on it earlier this month.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an advocacy group in Oakland, provided a copy of the three-page policy to The Associated Press. Greyhound confirmed its accuracy.

Two migrant advocacy groups held a conference call with Greyhound attorneys on Sept. 9 to urge the company to reconsider its position, saying it invites discrimination against Hispanics.

“When the standard is that you should know who is in the U.S. illegally, it is a recipe for singling out Latinos,” said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C., who participated in the call. “You’re not going to go after the Irish-looking guy.”

John Trasvina of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles, who also joined the call, took issue with Greyhound’s requirement that employees deny tickets to “anyone you know or believe to be an illegal alien.”

“On what basis does someone know it or believe to know that?” Trasvina said. “There’s a great risk that the employee will go overboard.”

Large Hispanic groups are more likely to be targeted than a Japanese or German tour group, he said.

Greyhound notes that while the policy prohibits profiling based on “race, national heritage, gender, age, religion, disability, etc,” federal law also makes it a crime to knowingly transport an illegal immigrant.

“We have to comply with federal law or we face pretty severe consequences – criminal indictments, seizure of assets,” she said.

The policy was adopted in response to the 2001 indictment of Golden State Transportation Co. of Los Angeles on immigrant smuggling charges. The company later filed for bankruptcy and it pleaded guilty last year to transporting an estimated 42,100 illegal immigrants from Tucson, Ariz., to Los Angeles, using a roundabout route through Las Vegas to avoid Border Patrol checkpoints. The company paid a $3 million fine and forfeited a downtown Phoenix terminal.

According to the indictment, buses typically left border cities after midnight to escape detection. Passengers appeared dirty, had no luggage, hid in the bushes near terminals and boarded buses at the last minute, prosecutors said.

“It wasn’t one criteria, but you put them all together and it was obvious that these people were not in the country legally,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace H. Kleinstedt, who prosecuted the case.

Greyhound, which carried 21.2 million passengers last year to more than 2,200 destinations, with a fleet of 2,700 buses and 9,700 employees, isn’t the only company with such a policy.

Sistema Internacional de Transporte de Autobuses Inc., a Greyhound subsidiary, owned a 51 percent stake in Golden State. It currently operates the Crucero and Autobuses Americanos bus lines and has had a policy similar to Greyhound’s since 2002, said Al Penedo, chief operating officer.

“It might sound a little overzealous, but we were scared, concerned and confused about what happened to Golden State,” said Penedo. “It was a wake-up call. … (The federal government) can walk in, take the bus, put your driver in jail and throw away the key.”

He said no customers have complained and agents haven’t denied any tickets under the policy.