- Two US citizens are taking legal action against Customs and Border Protection, alleging they were illegally detained after speaking Spanish in a store.
- Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez, residents of Montana, said they were approached by an agent who asked to see their IDs when they told him they were born in the US. They said they were then detained for about 40 minutes.
- In a video the pair recorded, the agent can be heard telling them: “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 American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit, said the detention “violated Ana and Mimi’s constitutional rights.”
- Suda said that she and Hernandez had been harassed in the community since the incident and that her daughter didn’t want to speak Spanish as a result.
Two US citizens have filed a federal lawsuit against Customs and Border Protection and one of its agents, alleging they were illegally detained after the agent heard them speaking Spanish in public.
Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez, who live in Montana, said they were at the Town Pump convenience store in Havre, Montana, in May when the agent, identified in the lawsuit as Paul O’Neal, demanded to see their identification.
They alleged in the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday, that O’Neal “singled them out based on race, relying on their use of Spanish as a justification and proxy for race.”
They said they greeted O’Neal, who asked where they were born. Suda said she was from Texas, and Hernandez said she was from California. O’Neal then asked to see their identification, the lawsuit says.
The women filmed the encounter. In the video footage, shared by the ACLU, one of the women can be heard asking the agent: “So can you tell us in the video, please, why you asked us for our IDs, please?”
The agent responds: “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.”
One of the women then accuses the agent of racial profiling. “This is just because of our profiles, right? Racial profiles?” she said.
The agent responds: “No, it has nothing to do with that. It’s just the fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store.” He says they were speaking Spanish “in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”
One of the women later tells the agent: “You don’t have the right to stop me just because I speak Spanish, and you know that.”
You can watch the ACLU’s video here:
The women said in the lawsuit that O’Neal and his supervisor detained them for about 40 minutes.
The lawsuit said that when Suda asked the supervisor whether they would have been detained had they been speaking French, the supervisor responded, “No, we don’t do that.”
In a video interview with the ACLU, the women said they had been harassed in their town since they publicly shared details of the incident. Suda said her daughter didn’t want to speak Spanish as a result.
“My daughter was also like, ‘Mummy, are you sure we can speak Spanish?'” Suda said. “I said something in Spanish, and she answered to me in English because she’s scared. This changed our lives, I believe, forever.”
She added: “To me, it’s important to help the community, to help them know that they can speak whatever they want.”
The ACLU said the detention “violated Ana and Mimi’s constitutional rights.”
“In fact, there is no official language in the United States – Americans speak hundreds of different languages,” the ACLU said. “Over 40 million U.S. citizens speak Spanish at home with their families, and tens of millions more speak Spanish as a secondary language. And Montana, like the rest of the country, is increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and language.”
Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jason Givens told Business Insider that it has a policy not to speak on pending litigation.
“However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations,” he said.
The agency had told CNN when the video footage first became public that it and its officers “are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity, and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States.”
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