Two Havre women who were detained for 40 minutes last year by a U.S. border agent who overheard them speaking Spanish in Havre are now suing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.
Ana Suda and Martha Hernández, both U.S. citizens with Montana drivers licenses, recorded cell phone video of the incident last May.
ANA SUDA: Why you ask us for our IDs please?
AGENT: Ma’am, the reason I asked you for your IDs, because I came in here and I saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here.
“You cannot simply stop somebody and interrogate them because they were speaking Spanish," says Alex Rate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, who is part of the women’s legal team. "Likewise, you cannot treat somebody different because of their heritage, because of their accent or because of their language.”
Rate says the fact that Hernández and Suda are bilingual should be celebrated, not punished. ACLU describes the women’s experience as both humiliating and traumatizing.
“This is a small town and so there have been confrontations around town amongst other people. There have been issues at Ana and Mimi’s (Martha’s) place of employment. So it’s just fair to say that folks know that this is out there, and they don’t like the fact that Ana and Mimi are standing up for their rights.”
The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Great Falls seeks compensation for the women and an order barring border officials from stopping or detaining anyone based on race, accent or language. Under a settlement reached in 2015, the Montana Highway Patrol agreed to comply with a policy against stopping someone solely to verify immigration status. Nor can troopers stop or detain someone based on race, religion national origin or sexual orientation.
A Customs and Border Patrol spokesman tells Montana Public Radio the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
According to information provided by CBP, in 2017 Havre’s 183 border patrol agents made 39 arrests. Eleven of those arrested were Mexican.
The agency has not yet released figures for 2018.