Poor Latinos described life in the South as living in a "war zone" in a report released Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"We found a population living in fear of the police, the government and people who prey on them for their vulnerability," said Mary Bauer, director of the nonprofit's Immigrant Justice Project and author of "Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South."

Researchers interviewed 500 Latinos at five locations stretching from New Orleans to Charlotte. Respondents were not asked about their immigration status, but 38 volunteered the information. Of those, about a third, or 12 people, were undocumented.

About 75 percent of those interviewed said they faced discrimination. And hate crimes against Latinos rose 40 percent from 2003-07, the study showed.

"The South is a stark example of what is going on with immigrants nationwide," said Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

But critics question the center's motivation for the report. "I don't know about discrimination against

Latinos," said Roan Garcia-Quintana, the Greenville-based executive director of the Americans Have Had Enough Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to enforcing immigration laws. "There's exploitation against Latinos. I would not doubt that. It's the greed of employers who drive this."

More than 40 percent of those interviewed said they had experienced wage theft. In New Orleans, where many migrant workers flocked to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, that rate jumped to 80 percent.

Often, when workers asked their employers for their wages, they were threatened with deportation. Some were handed over to authorities, and one was simply shown a gun.

About a third of people surveyed reported on-the-job injuries, and only 37 percent of those said they received appropriate treatment. The rest said they were not paid for lost wages, did not receive medical care or were fired.

"Nobody deserves to be treated like that," Garcia-Quintana said. "But you could argue they're allowing it. To a point, it's voluntary. Americans and legal immigrants can walk away and file lawsuits and workman's comp. They can't do much."

Employers in South Carolina are not required to provide workers' compensation to agricultural employees under most circumstances, according to the report.

Latina women face alarmingly high rates of sexual harassment. Nearly 80 percent of women surveyed said sexual harassment was a major problem at work.

Fear of authorities is why many do not report injustices. Many law enforcement agencies in the South have entered into agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to enforce immigration law. Of the 63 active agreements, two are in South Carolina: the sheriff's offices in Beaufort and York counties.

The study also blames politicians and media figures who scapegoat immigrants and spread false propaganda, singling out the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which is categorized as a hate group for its long-standing ties to white supremacists.

Public records show members of FAIR participated in at least one immigration study committee at the Statehouse, which legislators used for the basis of South Carolina's 2008 immigration law.

The atmosphere is draining Latinos. A 2007 mental health survey of Lowcountry migrant worker families found that 39 percent suffered from depression, nearly twice the rate of the general population. More than 40 percent described themselves as "so stressed that I sometimes feel I cannot take another day."

"This is the human toll of a failed government policy that relegates people to an underground economy where they are beyond the protection of the law," Bauer said.