US Citizens Detained in Montana for Speaking Spanish Settle Lawsuit

Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, left, and Ana Suda in Havre, Mont., in 2019. Hernandez and Suda, both U.S. citizens, have settled their lawsuit with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. (Brooke Swaney/ACLU of Montana via AP)

(CN) — Two American citizens who claim they were wrongfully detained for speaking Spanish in public settled their lawsuit against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and individual agents, the ACLU announced Tuesday.

On May 16, 2018, Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez — both certified nurse assistants — stopped at a local convenience store in Havre, Montana, to pick up some groceries for their families. While the two women waited in the cashier line and casually spoke with one another in Spanish, CBP Agent Paul O’Neill reportedly approached the two women and began to ask questions about their accents and where they were from.

O’Neill allegedly ordered the two to provide their identification and did not allow them to pay for their groceries until they had done so. After learning that both were American citizens, with valid Montana’s driver’s licenses, the three moved to the parking lot of the store where Suda and Hernandez began to film the incident.

According to the video, the two women asked the agent why they were being questioned, and the agent replied that it was “very unheard of up here” to see people speaking Spanish. Havre, a city with a population of 9,310, is around 45 miles south of the Canadian border.

More CBP agents were called to the scene and Suda and Hernandez were detained for at least another 40 minutes before being allowed to leave.

In February 2019, Suda and Hernandez sued the agent, the CBP and other border protection officials over the incident, alleging in their complaint that they were being discriminated against just for speaking Spanish in a public place.

Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana, said that on top of the humiliating treatment Suda and Hernandez experienced with the CBP agents, both individuals were also exposed to harsh backlash from the local community that forced them to relocate.

“As if the racism they experienced at the hands of CBP agents were not enough, our clients also bore the brunt of local backlash as a result of coming forward,” Borgmann said in a press statement. “They both ultimately left Havre for fear of their families’ safety.”

The lawsuit further alleges that what happened to the two women was no isolated incident. Representatives for Suda and Hernandez claim that as the lawsuit unfolded, it became clear that the incident at the convenience store was representative of a much larger pattern of “abusive seizures and investigations” that specifically targeted members of the Latinx community.

The ACLU claims that evidence collected during the legal battle revealed that the officer that stopped Suda and Hernandez that night was part of a Facebook group where CBP agents made inappropriate jokes or comments regarding Latinos. The officer also produced a series of text messages that contained anti-immigrant content, according to the ACLU.

The plaintiffs asked the court to permanently bar agents from conducting any kind of stop simply because an individual could be a Spanish speaker and sought damages. 

The ACLU also made clear that they expect the underlying issues of the case to be addressed by President-elect Joe Biden, saying on Tuesday that, within the first six months of the new administration, they want to see rewritten guidelines that explicitly prohibit discriminatory profiling and cut the number of border patrol agents by half. 

After the settlement was announced, Suda said that she hopes the dispute with the CBP will result in meaningful, positive changes to the agency’s 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 ever have to go through this again.”

In a statement obtained by the Associated Press, CBP said it didn’t admit liability and that the “the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe.”

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