Civil Rights Suit Highlights Enforcement of US-Canada Border

Two rows of plastic chains are all that separate Canada from the United States at the border in Sunburst, Montana. (David Reese / CNS)

(CN) – A 40-foot-wide dirt road stretches off into the distance through Sunburst, Montana, a tiny farming town in north-central Montana on the U.S.-Canada border.

Only this rough dirt road and a makeshift barrier of orange plastic chain separate the United States from Canada on this section of the northern border. On the Canadian side, children play basketball on an old concrete court and swing sets rattle in the wind.

This road on the outskirts of Sunburst is no Rio Grande, like the barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border, but it was here on this dirt road that one family tried to cross and were captured earlier by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

Ana Suda, left, and Mimi Hernandez stand outside the convenience store in Havre, Montana, where they were detained by Customs and Border Protection agents. (Courtesy Montana ACLU)

Ana Suda and her friend, Martha Hernandez, did not cross illegally into the United States when they were detained this past February in Havre, Montana. The two American citizens, however, were detained by border agents after they were observed speaking Spanish while waiting in line at a local convenience store in the town, which is close to the Canadian border.

The women sued Customs and Border Protection, and ever since then their lives have been turned upside down, they say.

Last week they notified the federal court in Great Falls, Montana, where their lawsuit was filed, that life in the small town has become unbearable. They now plan to move away.

The women’s lawsuit cites violations of the Fourth Amendment, claiming there was no legitimate reason to detain the women. The complaint also says their rights to equal protection were violated.

The defendants, Customs and Border Protection, CBP Commissioner Kevin Mcaleenan and CBP agent Paul O’Neal, have moved for dismissal, saying the plaintiffs fail to state a claim on which relief can be granted as it’s not likely the women would be detained again.

The international border crossing at Sweetgrass, Montana, is a complex of border security, but just outside the buildings only a dirt road separates the United States and Canada. (David Reese / CNS)

The border traffic at the international highway crossing at Sweetgrass, Montana, is dominated by trucking transportation and Canadian tourists traveling to and from Montana. But just outside that busy international border checkpoint are the dirt roads and wheat fields that Charles Hamilton, the agent in charge of the Sweetgrass station, is tasked with monitoring.

While the illegal crossing attempts at his section are a drop in the bucket compared to the southern border, Hamilton said the mission is the same: stopping bad guys.

“The potential for a bad guy to come in is still the same,” Hamilton said. “We still need that same vigilance and zeal as we have on our southwest border. The northern border is more porous. There is more area to cover, with a lot less resources.

“We really have to be diligent in executing our duties.”

Sunburst, Montana, is a tiny wheat-farm community on the U.S.-Canada border. (David Reese / CNS)

It was the “church crossing” in nearby Sunburst where Hamilton’s agents apprehended the adult Mexican national and his wife, six-month-old infant and small child. This area of town, set back among alleys, has a church on the Canadian side of town, with the church yard stretching up against the U.S. border. The swing sets and basketball courts are just a stone’s throw across the U.S. border. There are only two rows of orange and yellow plastic chain four feet off the ground that separate Canada from the United States.

Hamilton said the family parked its car near the church and simply walked across the road before they were apprehended.

Climate and terrain are the main deterrents to illegal border crossings between Montana and Canada, Hamilton said. Most of the handful of arrests for illegal crossings that his station makes annually are usually close to a town or highway. “Not a lot of people are going to try to weather that terrain to make an illegal entry,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the people in the small towns along the Montana-Canada border are the agency’s “most important tool.”

“They are our force multipliers. They serve as our eyes and ears. Who knows their property better than them?” he said.

“Our focus is on preventing that one bad guy from entering and doing bad things.”

The U.S. border with Canada in north-central Montana is simply a dirt road. (David Reese / CNS)

Suda moved to Havre in 2014 with her husband and two children. But now, Suda and Hernandez are moving on. Their lives in Havre have been so upset by local reaction to their lawsuit against Customs and Border Protection that they say they’ve been forced to move away.

“Our families have been harassed repeatedly for speaking out,” Suda said in a statement put out by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the women.

It might have been easier to “stay quiet” about the situation with the border agents, Suda said.

“I think about my kids. I 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.”

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