U.S. Border Patrol Detained U.S. Citizens for Speaking Spanish in Montana

For Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, May 16, 2018, began like any other in Havre, Montana: work, school, and a trip to the gym once their kids were in bed. They stopped by Town Pump — a local convenience store — to pick up groceries. While in line, the friends were chatting in Spanish, just two people having an ordinary conversation. But the Customs and Border Protection agent standing in line behind them did not see it that way. 

He demanded to know where Ana and Mimi were born. After they said they were born in Texas and California, he forced them to turn over their driver’s licenses. He detained them by his patrol car, in full view of neighbors, for an extended period before finally letting them return to their homes and families. Ana and Mimi walked away from the interaction humiliated and afraid that they might again be stopped, detained, and interrogated at any time.

When Ana and Mimi asked why they were being held, he answered unequivocally: Because they were speaking Spanish. Ana replied that she was a U.S. citizen and demanded to be released. But the agent refused to let them go.

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This detention violated Ana and Mimi’s constitutional rights. The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf. Speaking Spanish is not against the law. In fact, there is no official language in the United States — Americans speak hundreds of different languages. Over 40 million U.S. citizens speak Spanish at home with their families, and tens of millions more speak Spanish as a secondary language. And Montana, like the rest of the country, is increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and language.

So why did the CBP agent hold Ana and Mimi?

Apparently, he believed their use of Spanish justified his actions. But just as you can’t be pulled over in your car for no good reason, CBP must have “reasonable suspicion” for a brief investigatory stop and “probable cause” for a longer arrest. The agent who held Ana and Mimi had no legally legitimate reason to do so. In fact, in hearing a similar case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court with jurisdiction over Montana, explained that even the inability to speak English cannot by itself justify a border patrol agent’s stop because “the same characteristic applies to a sizable portion of individuals lawfully present in this country.” In Ana and Mimi’s case, the problem is even starker: The agent detained two women who can speak English — merely because they chose to speak a different language with each other.

This unconstitutional seizure left Ana and Mimi feeling threatened and unsafe in their own country. Their experience is far from an outlier. The case in which the Ninth Circuit held that even the inability to speak English, by itself, does not give rise to reasonable suspicion justifying a stop? That took place in the same town — Havre, Montana — and is just one example in a pattern of unjustified investigation by CBP agents of members of the local Latinx community.

READ ANA'S STORY

More broadly, this kind of abusive CBP activity reflects an out-of-control agency emboldened by a vehemently anti-immigrant administration. From the Muslim Ban to the policy of separating families at the border to the president’s dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants and communities of color, the Trump administration has made its commitment to xenophobia painfully clear. And it has encouraged the worst tendencies of CBP — an agency with a long history of misconduct — from the very start, promising to “take the shackles off” officers and encouraging the use of excessive force.

But, like millions of others, Ana and Mimi refuse to accept an out-of-control CBP as a fact of life. As Ana explained, all of us have rights. Now they are suing to seek accountability. As America becomes more diverse in every way, the Constitution’s guarantees continue to protect all of us — regardless of race, ethnicity, or language — and our clients like Ana and Mimi will keep demanding that CBP live up to its constitutional and legal obligations.

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Anonymous

Sadly, AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) represents Border Patrol in labor matters. In doing so, they are protecting the THUGS and THUGGERY of these monsters against human rights. AFGE is in Washington DC. J. David Cox, President. Write them and let them know how you feel.

44Edward

Unions are required by law, to represent all members. Regardless of their innocence or the policies of their agencies. I agree this case needs to go thru the courts.

Chester

This wouldn't be a labor dispute. This is a civil and criminal issue rather than a labor issue. I don't care WHO you are, you deserve all the help you can get when it comes to labor disputes.

Ageekymom

In this time of Trump, it is reassuring to know the the ACLU is working on our behalf to ensure our rights are not trampled by this wannabe dictator. Thank you!

Anonymous

This really pisses me off! This is NOT nazi Germany where the Gestapo just randomly asks for your papers. This shit must stop.

Jim Odell

Unfortunately, we have already stepped over the line to becoming a Fascist/Nazi nation. No one is holding our president accountable, especially his political party. Now that they are allowed to separate families, imprison babies (damaging them for life) and not be held accountable for their inhumanity, the only force speaking against it being the UN; actively and openly dividing our nation, etc., etc,, we have already stepped over the line in the sand.

Anonymous

Have Trump voters realized that if 1st, 4th and 14th Amendments are meaningless restraints on government authority - so are 2nd Amendment gun rights. The Bill of Rights are a package deal, not an a la cartel menu! By depriving these Americans their constitutional rights, you lose your rights also. Republicans should follow Rand Paul not Trump.

Anonymous

Rand Paul supports trump

Domi O'Brien

My mother was born and grew up here in the US-- speaking French, the primary language of her parents, their neighbours, and most of the small city in Vermont where she was born and raised. One of my college roommates was also born and raised here in NH speaking French as her primary language, as were multiple of my work colleagues. Millions of Americans routinely speak languages other than English. Interference in the rights of Americans going about their daily business lawfully by out-of-control government agents needs to stop. NOW.

DMR

That was my first thought. Are Vermonters going to be detained for speaking French? And then I realized that was absurd ... It’s not white skinned people who are at risk. At least not yet.

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