One of the two women recorded a CBP officer telling her that he was detaining her for no other reason than that he had heard her speak in Spanish.
Two women have reached a settlement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection after an agent briefly detained them for speaking Spanish inside a Havre, Montana, convenience store.
As LegalReader has reported before, the lawsuit was filed by Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, both U.S. citizens. The women say their constitutional rights were violated when a Border Protection officer detained them in a parking lot for the better part of an hour while attempting to verify their identification.
That officer, says the lawsuit, had no reason to suspect either Suda or Hernandez was in the country illegally—he simply made an assumption after hearing them converse in Spanish.
While Customs and Border Protection did agree to settle the case for an undisclosed amount, the agency refused to admit liability for any wrongdoing. In a statement, the agency maintained that “the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe.”
ABC News notes that the confrontation between Suda, Hernandez, and CBP Agent Paul O’Neill was caught on tape.
Suda, says ABC, had decided to record the encounter after O’Neill followed them into the parking lot of a Town Pump convenience store. When Suda asked O’Neill why she and her friend were being detained and forced to show their identity documents, the officer responded by saying he was suspicious of their Spanish-language proficiency.
“Ma’am, the reason I asked you for your I.D. is because I came in here and I saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here,” O’Neill said.
In the lawsuit filed against CBP, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Alex Rate recounted how O’Neill made it evident that neither woman was free to leave the parking lot. Later, a local Customs and Border Protection supervisor arrived and backed O’Neill, saying the women were being held until their legal status could be checked.
Following the agency’s decision to settle, Suda said she hopes that the Customs and Border Protection agency will reconsider its policies.
“We stood up to the government because speaking Spanish is not a reason to be racially profiled and harassed,” Suda said. “I am proud to be bilingual, and I hope that as a result of this case, CBP takes a hard look at its policies and practices. No one else should have to go through this again.”
Even though the federal government denied any and all wrongdoing, ABC News notes that the ACLU’s investigation found that local Customs and Border Protection officers partook in “routine” racial profiling.
“It is a small place, and we have a lot of agents here and nobody really has much to do,” a CBP supervisor told ACLU attorneys in a videotaped deposition.
The same supervisor recalled how, one time, he had been walking through a local mall when he overheard two people “who appeared to be of Mexican descent” speaking Spanish. While reaching for his radio to report the incident, he noticed that another Border Patrol agent was already tailing them.
“If there’s somebody speaking Spanish down there, it’s like all of a sudden you’ve got five agents swarming in, ‘What’s going on?’” the supervisor added.
ACLU-Montana Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann said Suda and Hernandez faced extensive harassment after reporting their bad experience with Customs and Border Protection; both women wound up leaving Havre to ensure their families’ safety.