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Washington, Feb 7 (IANS) Thousands of immigrants from India have crossed into the United States illegally in the last year through Mexico using what the Los Angeles Times calls 'a mysterious and rapidly growing human-smuggling pipeline'.

The immigrants, mostly young men from poor villages of Punjab or Gujarat states, say they are fleeing religious and political persecution, the daily said in a report from Harlingen on the southern tip of Texas.

More than 1,600 Indians have been caught since the influx began early last year, while an undetermined number, perhaps thousands, are believed to have sneaked through undetected, according to US border authorities, it said.

Hundreds have been released on their own recognizance or after posting bond, the Times said. 'They catch buses or go to local Indian-run motels before flying north for the final leg of their months-long journeys.'

The trend has caught the attention of anti-terrorism officials because of the pipeline's efficiency in delivering to America's doorstep large numbers of people from a troubled region.

Authorities interview the immigrants, most of whom arrive with no documents, to ensure that people from neighbouring Pakistan or Middle Eastern countries are not slipping through.

But there is no evidence that terrorists are using the smuggling pipeline, FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials were quoted as saying.

The influx shows signs of accelerating: About 650 Indians were arrested in southern Texas in the last three months of 2010 alone, the Times said, noting that Indians are now the largest group of immigrants other than Latin Americans being caught at the southwest border.

The migration is the 'most significant' human-smuggling trend being tracked by US authorities, Kumar Kibble, deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE was quoted as saying by the Times.

In 2009, the Border Patrol arrested only 99 Indians along the entire Southwest border.

'It's a dramatic increase,' Kibble said. 'We do want to monitor these pipelines and shut them down because it is a vulnerability. They could either knowingly or unknowingly smuggle people into the US that pose a national security threat.'

Most of the immigrants say they are from the Punjab or Gujarat states. 'They are largely Sikhs who say they face religious persecution, or members of the Bharatiya Janata Party who say they are targeted for beatings by members of the (Indian) National Congress Party,' the Times said.

Many Indians begin their journey by flying from Mumbai to Dubai, then to South American countries such as Ecuador or Venezuela, according to authorities and immigration attorneys cited by the US daily.

Guatemala has emerged as the key transit hub into Mexico, they said. The roundabout journeys are necessary because Mexico requires visas for Indians.