Two women detained in US for speaking Spanish settle border patrol case

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HELENA, MONT. – Two women who were arrested in northern Montana by US Customs and Border Protection officials for speaking Spanish while shopping at a convenience store reached an undisclosed monetary settlement in their lawsuit against the agency, the ACLU of Montana announced Tuesday. Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, both US citizens, said their constitutional rights were violated when they were detained in the parking lot outside a store in the city of Le Havre for 40 minutes after being detained. an agent had demanded their identity.

In resolving the matter, the United States Customs and Border Protection said it did not admit responsibility and added in a statement that “the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and agents are ‘discharge their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to ensure the security of our country ”.

The case came to light after Suda took a video of the May 2018 interaction in which she asked Officer Paul O’Neill why he was questioning them.

“Ma’am, the reason I asked for your ID card is because I came here and saw that you speak Spanish, which is very unknown here,” O’Neill said in the video. Suda and Hernandez had valid Montana driver’s licenses.

O’Neill and a supervisor who arrived later made it clear with words and actions that women were not free to leave the convenience store parking lot, ACLU attorney Alex Rate wrote in the trial.

“We opposed the government because speaking Spanish is not a reason to be racially and harassed,” Suda said in a statement provided by the ACLU. “I am proud to be bilingual and I hope that following this matter, CBP will take a close look at its policies and practices. No one else should ever have to go through this again. ”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in their statement that their workers “are trained to apply U.S. laws consistently and fairly and do not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation ”.

He added that the regulations “are in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants or employees, and it is specifically denied that they are responsible to the plaintiffs. ”

The agency did not respond to emailed questions asking if O’Neill still works for the agency or faces discipline related to the case. The agency and women’s lawyers have not revealed how much money will be paid as part of the settlement.

In gathering information for the trial, the ACLU said customs and border protection officers in northern Montana acknowledged that they regularly profiled non-whites.

“It’s a small place and we have a lot of agents here and nobody really has much to do,” an anonymous border protection supervisor told ACLU lawyers in a videotaped statement. .

He said he saw two people who appeared to be of Mexican descent at the mall while he was off duty, started looking for his phone to call what he saw, but then spotted another agent border patrol behind them already talking on his phone.

“If there’s someone who speaks Spanish there, it’s like all of a sudden you have five agents swarming around,” What’s going on? Said the supervisor.

Suda and Hernandez faced backlash in Le Havre for filing a complaint, the ACLU said.

“They both left Le Havre out of fear for the safety of their families,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU Montana.

Suda was born in Texas and moved to Montana with her husband in 2014. Hernandez was born in California and moved to Montana in 2010. Both are certified practical nurses and have worked in a privacy center.

Havre is a town of nearly 10,000 people in north-central Montana, about 48 kilometers from the Canada-US border and close to two Indian reservations.

The city’s population is predominantly white, about 15% Native American and about 4% Hispanic, according to the U.S. census.

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