A group of Hispanic U.S. Customs agents sued the Treasury Department yesterday, accusing the agency of discriminating against them for almost 30 years.

The agents, most of whom are criminal investigators stationed along the nation's borders, alleged that Treasury has cheated them of financial bonuses owed to employees who are bilingual -- awards that, for many, can total several thousand dollars per year. Customs comes under the Treasury Department.

According to the suit, they claimed the department segregates them along either the southwestern border or in Puerto Rico; that it assigns a disproportionate number of them to do the most dangerous jobs; that it routinely ignores them for promotions; and that its employees harass those who complain about the practices.

The Hispanic agents are a group of eight named plaintiffs who say they are suing on behalf of more than 400 of their colleagues. Aside from back pay and compensatory damages, they want the agency to overhaul the way its evaluates, pays and promotes its agents.

"I hope to see a comprehensive reform of the Treasury Department," said David Shaffer, a lawyer for the group. "The [department] is completely impervious to these allegations of racial discrimination and will not comply without a court order."

A spokeswoman for Treasury said she was unaware of the suit and could not comment on it.

The agents' complaints mirror two other cases against Treasury.

In May 2000, a group of black Secret Service agents sued, claiming that the agency discriminated against blacks when hiring, promoting and assigning jobs. That suit is pending.

In March of this year, black agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms filed a motion that, if granted, would force Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill to explain why he allegedly has not implemented a 1996 agreement to improve the bureau's treatment of its minority employees.