HAVRE, Mont. — Two US citizens who were asked last year by a US Border Patrol agent for their identification after he heard them speaking Spanish in a Montana convenience store are suing the federal agency and the agent.
Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, who live in the small town of Havre, say a border patrol agent questioned them for 40 minutes in May 2018 after the co-workers stopped at the store as they each headed home from the gym.
Suda, who was born in Texas, and Hernandez, who was born in California, were in line when the Border Patrol agent, Paul O’Neal, began by commenting on Hernandez’s accent and asking them where they were born. He then asked for their driver’s licenses and had them stand by his patrol vehicle, the lawsuit says.
“It’s unconstitutional to detain people just because of their language, accent, or color of their skin,” said Cody Wofsy, staff attorney with the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit Thursday on behalf of the women.
The women believed they were being detained and said a supervisor who came wouldn’t let them go, the lawsuit says.
O’Neal eventually returned their licenses and told them they could go, the court document says.
The lawsuit says O’Neal violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, and the women’s rights to equal protection.
It is Customs and Border Protection policy not to speak on pending litigation, spokesman Jason Givens said.
“However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations,” he said.
Previously the agency said border agents try to be respectful.
“US Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States,” the agency said after the incident became public.
Agent says Spanish is rarely heard in that area
Suda recorded the encounter on her cell phone. The video shows Suda asking why the agent questioned them.
“Ma’am, the reason I asked for your IDs is because I came in here and saw that you guys were speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here,” he says of the area about 35 miles south of the US-Canada border.
Suda then asks O’Neal whether she and her friend are being racially profiled.
“It has nothing to do with that,” the agent replies. “It has to do with the fact that you were speaking Spanish in the store in a state that is predominantly English-speaking.”
About 4% of Havre residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the US Census. About 1.4% speak a language other than English at home.
The United States has no official language. Though English is spoken in most homes — and used for government documents, court proceedings and business contracts — at least 350 languages are spoken in the country, according to the US Census Bureau.
About 4% of Montana residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the US Census Bureau.