The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the United States Customs and Border Protection on behalf of two US-born women who were detained last year by a border agent after speaking Spanish at a convenience store in a small Montana city.
The official, identified in the lawsuit as Paul A. O’Neal, stopped the women, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez, as they were chatting in Spanish while buying groceries at a convenience store in Havre, Mont., on May 16, 2018.
The lawsuit alleges that he commented on Hernandez’s accent, saying it was “very strong,” and then asked where they were born. Suda, who asked if he was serious, to which he replied “I’m very serious,” was born in El Paso, Texas, and Hernandez was born in El Centro, Calif.
O’Neal then asked the women for their IDs. After they showed him their valid Montana driver’s licenses, he directed them to the parking lot, where he detained the women for about 35 to 40 minutes.
“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 said in the video.
When Suda asked if she and her friend were victims of racial profiling, the agent responded, “It has nothing to do with that. It’s the fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”
The lawsuit claims that O’Neal “offered no other justification for the women’s detention and there was no reason to believe that either Ms. Suda or Ms. Hernandez had violated any law.” For that, the ACLU stated that Customs and Border Protection violated the women’s rights to equal protection and their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure because there was “no legitimate reason to detain” them.
“Agent O’Neal singled them out based on race, relying on their use of Spanish as a justification and proxy for race,” the suit says.
The lawsuit seeks the CBP, its commissioner and the agent be inhibited from detaining people based on their race, accent or speaking a language other than English, except in cases when there are specific and credible suspect descriptions.
The women, who have stated that their lives have been changed forever, are also seeking compensatory damages. According to Suda, the event has made her daughter afraid to speak Spanish.
The CBP said that as a matter of policy, it does not comment on pending litigation, but that “lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”