American Women Sue U.S. Border Agency After Being Detained for Speaking Spanish

Source: NPR/ACLU

“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.”

Two American women, Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, have filed suit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being detained and asked for identification for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Havre, Montana.

According to a report from NPR, Suda and Hernandez — the former born in El Paso, TX, the latter in El Centro, CA — were waiting to purchase milk and eggs in May of 2018, when Hernandez said “hello” to CBP agent, Paul O’Neil, who noted she had “a very strong accent.” Both Suda and Hernandez were detained for roughly 40 minutes while O’Neil ran their identification outside of his CBP car. During the incident (see below,) Suda and Hernandez ask O’Neil if it was illegal to speak Spanish in Montana, to which O’Neil replies “Well, ma’am it’s not illegal, it’s just very unheard of up here.”

The longtime friends, who have lived in Havre for years working as certified nurse assistants, partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the CBP for a violation of their rights against unreasonable seizure and equal protection under the law, describing the experience as both humiliating and inciting emotional and psychological harm, and now fear speaking Spanish in public altogether. They’re seeking unspecified compensation and punitive damages, asking the court to prevent border officials from stopping or detaining anyone “on the basis of race, accent and/or speaking Spanish.”

The report describes another incident from early in the year, when agents almost detained Suda and Hernandez for dancing at a bar, but escaped detainment after one of the agents recognized them as friends of his wife.

Watch a video of Hernandez and Suda confronting the officer below.


Zo is a staff writer at Okayplayer where he covers music.

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