Two Montana mothers who were detained while grocery shopping in Havre are suing Customs and Border Protection, saying they were interrogated for simply speaking Spanish.
Two Montana women are suing Customs and Border Patrol, claiming they were arrested for speaking Spanish at a gas station.
Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez say they were approached by a uniformed CBP officer in May. The two were waiting in line at a Town Pump convenience store, situated some 35 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border.
Their Spanish-language conversation was enough to pique the interest of the federal agent, who asked about Hernandez’s accent. What was supposed to be a routine grocery run quickly escalated, with Suda video-taping part of the heated exchange.
“Ma’am, the reason I asked you for your ID is because I came in here, and I saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here,” the agent can be heard saying in the video, which was released by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Both women, notes Vox.com, are U.S. citizens.
And both women were detained for the better part of an hour while C.B.P. investigated their immigration status.
Suda and Hernandez’s lawsuit was filed against the CBP on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Montana. They’re being represented by the ACLU and its Immigrants’ Right Projects.
“Speaking Spanish is not against the law. Americans speak hundreds of different languages,” IRP staff attorney Cody Wofsy told The Washington Post. “This is really a sign of local agents’ abuse of power, which has only been emboldened during the Trump administration.”
The lawsuit draws an obvious conclusion from a transparent interaction: that the two women were targeted for interrogation and detention based on their race. Its intent is to permanently bar Customs and Border Protection from detaining people on the basis of race, accent or whichever language one happens to be speaking.
Suda, says the Post, recounted in an online post how she and Hernandez gave the officer their driver’s licenses. Meanwhile, the agent radioed in to command and asked for backup, “as if two moms holding a carton of eggs were a threat.”
When the officer’s supervisor arrived, Suda said, “When I asked him whether we would have been detained for speaking French, he said, ‘No, we don’t do that.’”
The Post notes that Suda was born and Texas and has been living in Montana for about five years, while Hernandez is a California native who moved to the state in 2010. Both are certified nursing assistants and employed near Havre.
Even though both grew up in the United States, they say the encounter was eye-opening and transformative—they and their children no longer feel comfortable speaking Spanish in public, fearing it could lead to legal repercussions.
“Ms. Hernandez and Ms. Suda no longer feel comfortable speaking Spanish in public, and fear if they do so, or otherwise express their Latinx identity, they will be stopped and questioned by CBP agents,” ACLU attorneys wrote in the complaint.
Suda told the Post that it would’ve been easier to avoid the legal system and simply stay silent.
But Suda says, “I want my children to not only be proud of being bilingual, but I also want them to know that they live in a country where people can’t just be stopped and interrogated based on how they look and sound.”