Two women who were detained in a small town in Montana after a border patrol officer overheard them speaking Spanish at a convenience store settled for an undisclosed amount after filing a customs and protection lawsuit. US borders, the Montana ACLU said Tuesday.
The women, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez, were held for approximately 40 minutes on May 16, 2018, after a border patrol officer overheard them speaking Spanish as they lined up to buy milk and eggs in a Town Pump convenience store in Le Havre, Mont., a town of nearly 10,000 people about 35 miles south of the Canadian border.
As he stood behind the two lined up women, Border Patrol Officer Paul O’Neill was greeted by Ms Hernandez. He commented on his accent and asked the women where they were from. After responding that they were from Texas and California, Mr. O’Neill asked for their ID and the two women gave him their valid state-issued driver’s licenses.
In a video of the meeting filmed by the women, one of them asked why Mr. O’Neill had asked for identification.
“The reason I asked you for your ID,” replied Mr. O’Neill, “is because I came here and saw that you speak Spanish, which is very unknown. here.
Other border patrol officers quickly arrived, along with Mr O’Neill’s supervisor, according to the lawsuit. Ms Suda asked the supervisor if she and Ms Hernandez would have been detained if they spoke French. “No,” he replied, “we don’t do that.”
Ms Suda, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and Ms Hernandez, who was born in El Centro, Calif., Both grew up speaking Spanish and were residing in Le Havre at the time of the incident.
In 2019, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the women, alleging that a border patrol agent singled them out for speaking Spanish and relied on that as a “power of attorney for the race”. Lawyers representing Ms Suda and Ms Hernandez also said the detention violated the Fourth Amendment and women’s right to equal protection.
Since the incident, Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez have left Le Havre out of fear for the safety of their families and because of “local backlashes,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU Montana.
Lawyers representing O’Neill did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the regulations did not mean he was held responsible for the incident. Border Patrol officers “are trained to apply US laws consistently and fairly, and they do not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” the agency said. .
“CBP is committed to fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the business and the traveling public, and commemorated its commitment to non-discrimination in existing policies,” the agency said.
In a statement released by the ACLU, Ms. Suda said she hoped the meeting would prompt U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reassess her conduct.
“We have stood up to the government because speaking Spanish is no reason to be racially profiled and harassed. I am proud to be bilingual and I hope that following this affair, CBP is carefully reviewing its policies and practices, ”said Ms. Suda. “No one else should ever have to go through this again.”
This was not the first time that she and Ms Hernandez had come under suspicion of border patrol officers.
In February 2018, an agent overheard Ms Suda and Ms Hernandez speaking Spanish in a bar in Le Havre. The agent sent a picture of them to other agents in a message saying, “There are two Mexicans at the bar.” An officer receiving the message then replied that Ms Suda and Ms Hernandez were friends of his wife.
Hispanic residents make up about 4% of Le Havre’s population, while white residents make up about 80%, according to census data. In Montana, almost 4% of people speak a language other than English at home.
In a video the ACLU obtained during the investigation, a supervisor of US customs and border protection told agency investigators he saw “nothing harassing” about the incident of May 2018. Le Havre is a small town, he noted, where “nobody really has much to do”.
“If there’s someone speaking Spanish here,” the supervisor says, “all of a sudden you have five agents swarming like, ‘What’s going on? So Havre is a bit like that.
The ACLU also discovered that Mr. O’Neill was a member of the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group, which included “obscene images of Hispanic lawmakers and threats against members of Congress.”
The local Havre area office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which had 175 officers in fiscal 2018, has jurisdiction over 456 miles of the border area.
In 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that agents in the Le Havre area had violated the Fourth Amendment and “lacked reasonable suspicion” when they arrested five Hispanic men in 2004.
Ms Borgmann said the 2018 incident involving Ms Suda and Ms Hernandez was not just an example of a ‘bad apple’ but also of a systemic problem within the Le Havre area.
“I hope that it is recognized as a result of this trial and the courage of these women to come forward,” she said, “that this is ingrained behavior and must be to cease.