Last week, near the US border with Canada, an incident took place at a convenience store gas station in the small town of Havre, Montana that has garnered national attention, thanks to a video posted to social media.
Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez ran what should have been a quick late night errand to buy milk and eggs, as many Americans have. After getting in line, the errand took a turn for the worse. The American Civil Liberties Union is now looking into the incident that transpired.
Suda and Hernandez, who are both fluent Spanish speakers as well as U.S. citizens, unsurprisingly and legally conversed with each other in Spanish while waiting in line. Their exchange of words caught the ears of a nearby uniformed Border Patrol agent who interrupted and eventually detained the women.
“We were just talking, and then I was going to pay,” Suda told The Washington Post. “I looked up, and then after that, he just requested my ID. I looked at him like, ‘Are you serious?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, very serious.’ ”
After the confrontation moved into the parking lot, Suda began recording with her cellphone. She asks why she and her friend are being detained and the agent responds, “Ma’am, 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 agent denied racially profiling the women but admitted he was detaining them for speaking Spanish “in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”
The agent kept the women in the parking lot for 35 to 40 minutes, despite showing him their IDs upon his request and their attempts to justify speaking Spanish.
“I was so embarrassed … being outside in the gas station, and everybody’s looking at you like you’re doing something wrong. I don’t think speaking Spanish is something criminal, you know?” Suda said. “My friend, she started crying. She didn’t stop crying in the truck. And I told her, we are not doing anything wrong.”
After the local news picked up the story, Suda’s young bilingual daughter expressed concern over speaking Spanish in public. “She speaks Spanish, and she speaks English,” Suda said. “When she saw the video, she was like, ‘Mom, we can’t speak Spanish anymore?’ I said ‘No. You be proud. You are smart. You speak two languages.’ This is more for her.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is reviewing the incident. While Border Patrol agents do have authority to operate within 100 miles of a U.S. border, they may only act on reasonable suspicion of a crime or immigration violation, neither of which appear to apply in the case of Suda and Hernandez.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States,” the agency said in a statement. “Although most Border Patrol work is conducted in the immediate border area, agents have broad law enforcement authorities and are not limited to a specific geography within the United States. They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence.”
Suda plans to contact the ACLU to seek legal assistance.
“I just don’t want this to happen anymore,” Suda said. “I want people to know they have the right to speak whatever language they want. I think that’s the most important part, to help somebody else.”
It shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it has to be said: speaking Spanish is not a valid reason for a Border Patrol agent to question or detain someone.
This article (Border Patrol Agent in Montana Detains Two US Citizens Because They Spoke Spanish) is Creative Commons and written by Emma Fiala.