NPR reported on Friday that a Border Patrol agent in Montana claimed to have heard two women in a Montana store speaking Spanish so he allegedly detained them for at least 40 minutes, refused to let them pay for their groceries, told them to show their identification after asking them, “where were you born?” and told 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 incident occurred last May when the two women, “Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez — American citizens who were born in Texas and California, respectively — were questioned as they attempted to buy groceries in Havre, Mont., … They captured video of the encounter, which began inside the Town Pump gas station and convenience store. In all, they were detained for some 40 minutes.”
Suda and Hernandez, who are friends, have both been residence of Havre, Montana for several years and have been “working as certified nurse assistants at a local medical center and raising their children, according to their lawsuit.”
They allege that after having gone to the gym after work they were in line to pay for their groceries of milk and eggs “when Hernandez said hello to O’Neal in the checkout line — and that he replied by saying she had a strong accent.”
He then asked the pair where they had been born — leading Suda to ask, “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious,” O’Neal responded, according to the suit.
Suda told the agent she had been born in El Paso, Texas; Hernandez said she was born in El Centro, Calif. But that didn’t satisfy O’Neal, who “demanded that the two provide him with identification and refused to let them pay for their groceries” until they complied, the suit states.
O’Neal then took the women outside by his CBP jeep. At that point, the women started using their phones to film what was happening. As they did that, O’Neal radioed in their names and dates of birth.NPR
With the help of a local lawyer and the Montana chapter of the ACLU, Suda and Hernandez filed suit against the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Thursday in the U.S. District Court of Montana Great Falls Division on the grounds that “the CBP agent violated their constitutional rights when he detained them and asked to see their identification.”
According to the suit, the New York Times reported, the border patrol agent is identified as Paul A. O’Neal.
ACLU lawyer Alex Rate described to the local radio station that the women have been feeling “repercussions both from the incident and their decision to go public.”
“This is a small town and so there have been confrontations around town amongst other people,” Rate said, according to MTPR. “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 also alleges that Suda and Hernandez had narrowly missed being detained earlier in 2018, when a CBP agent who saw them dancing one night took photos of them that he shared with other agents, along with a message: “There are two Mexicans at the bar.”
The incident might have resulted in the pair being detained, the suit says, if another agent hadn’t replied that he recognized the women — and that they were friends with his wife.NPR
After inquiring if they were being detained because of being profiled, O’Neal replied, “No, it has nothing to do with that. It’s that fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking, OK?”
When a supervisor was called to the scene, “Suda asked whether they would have been detained if they had been speaking French in the store.” According to the filing, the supervisor replied, “No, we don’t do that.”
“For reference, Havre is only about 20 miles from the U.S.-Canada border.”
According to the lawsuit, “a strong and vibrant Latinx community” exists within the small town of “less than 10,000” and that “contrary to the CBP agent’s statement that Spanish isn’t spoken often,” there is a local radio station broadcast in Spanish.