Lawyers for United States Customs and Border Protection asked a federal judge in Great Falls on Wednesday to toss out a case involving a federal agent questioning two women for speaking Spanish in Havre.
MTPR’s Corin Cates-Carney was at the courthouse and shared his reporting with YPR News’ Nicky Ouellet.
Nicky Ouellet: Corin, can you give us a little refresher on what this case is about?
Corin Cates-Carney: Sure. Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez are suing Customs and Border Protection because they say they were illegally detained and singled out because of their race. An agent first questioned them last May because he heard them speaking Spanish in a convenience store, and the women recorded part of that interaction.
On a recording, a woman can be heard asking why they were being asked for their IDs. An agent responds: "Ma’am the reason I asked you for your IDs is because I came in here and I saw that you guys were speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here."
Cates-Carney: Clips of that video went viral and sparked coverage from national outlets, and it was shared by the Amerian Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Montana, which are representing Suda and Hernandez in the case.
Ouellet: Is there more context for what's going on during this scene?
Cates-Carney: Suda and Hernandez were on their way home from their local gym in Havre and stopped at a convenience store to pick up some milk and eggs. And while they were shopping they were talking. They both grew up speaking Spanish, and that’s what they were speaking when a border patrol agent overheard them in the store. Paul O’Neal goes on to ask them where they were born and to see their IDs, which they hand over. And then they go outside and stand by the agent's car. And court documents say they were detained for about 40 minutes.
Ouellet: Are Suda and Hernandez American citizens?
Cates-Carney: Yes, they were both born in the U.S. Suda is from Texas and Hernandez was born in California. And they moved to Montana in 2010 and 2014, respectively.
Ouellet: So they're saying that they were singled out because of race. What was the government’s argument Wednesday to have their case tossed out?
Cates-Carney: Today’s argument was about a motion from the government to dismiss the case, like you said. The United States lawyers say that the women can’t show the likelihood of substantial, immediate and irreperable injury without the court stepping in. Basically, they're saying that the agent questioning them last year about speaking Spanish doesn't show a pattern of something that could harm them into the future. The government's argument is that this is one incident; they were stopped once in the time that they’ve lived in Havre, and this one incident isn’t enough to require the court to step in.
Ouellet: What about Suda and Hernandez? What do they have to say about that?
Cates-Carney: They weren’t in court. The ACLU argued on their behalf, and the ACLU says there are enough dots to kind of give us a bigger picture of what's going on. And a court document says that on a separate occasion the two women were out dancing and a border agent at the bar took a photo of them and sent it other agents saying that “there are two Mexcians at the bar.” And the ACLU argues that the only reason the agents didn’t detain Suda and Hernandez at that time was because the agents got a message back saying that the women were friends of one of the agents' wife. And the government says that supposes a lot about that incident, and it’s not enough to show there is a pattern to connect dots, that it's not enough to ask the court to step in.
Ouellet: Did the judge make a ruling on the dismissal motion on Wednesday?
Cates-Carney: No he didn't, and a timeline for that is not clear. The ACLU says if federal Judge Brian Morris allows the case to continue that’s when they’ll be able to ask for things that could help boost their argument, like discovering potential official or unofficial policies, possibly policies made in the last few years within the border agency that might have prompted agent O’Neal to approach the women because he heard them speaking Spanish.
It’s also working mentioning that while this case had unfolded the women say they’ve been shunned and excluded by some people in Havre, and they say they no longer feel comfortable speaking Spanish in public. ACLU attorneys say it’s unclear if the women will stay in the area in the future.
Ouellet: Corin, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.
Cates-Carney: Sure thing.