The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and law firm Crowley Fleck PLLP filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of two American citizens detained by United States Customs and Border Protection for speaking Spanish while shopping at a local convenience store in Havre, Montana.
The women — Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez — were simply standing in line waiting to pay when a border agent approached them, commented on Hernandez’s accent, and asked where they were born. They responded Texas and California, respectively.
The agent then ordered the women to show identification, and they promptly presented their valid Montana driver’s licenses. There was no reason to believe that either woman had violated any law, but regardless, the agent detained them in the parking lot. The women began filming the agent, asking him why he targeted them. He replied that it “has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominately English speaking.” He offered no other justification for detaining and interrogating them. Watch the video.
“It's unconstitutional to detain people just because of their language, accent, or color of their skin,” said Cody Wofsy, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
The lawsuit cites violations of the Fourth Amendment, because there was no legitimate reason to seize the women; and of equal protection, because the agent singled the women out based on race, relying on their use of Spanish as a justification and proxy for race. Indeed, according to the complaint, the agent’s supervisor confirmed that French speakers would not be similarly detained.
This experience has been humiliating and traumatizing. Even though the women and their families have lived in Havre for years, they have since been shunned and harassed by other town residents. Suda says her daughter is now also afraid to speak Spanish, asking, “Mommy, are you sure we can speak Spanish?” When she speaks with her daughter in Spanish, her child answers her in English, “because she is scared.”
“This changed our lives, I believe, forever,” said Suda.
The lawsuit seeks to permanently block CBP from stopping and detaining people on the basis of race, accent, and/or speaking Spanish.
“This unjustified and discriminatory seizure is part of a longstanding pattern of abuse by local CBP agents. It is illegal and must stop,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana.
The duo brought this lawsuit to stand up for their rights and to make sure that the discrimination they faced doesn’t happen to other people. “My friend told me, ‘Oh they picked the wrong person,” but I said, ‘No, they picked the right person — the person who is going to stand up for the next one,’” said Hernandez.
The case, Suda v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was filed in U.S. District Court in Great Falls.