Two U.S. citizens who were stopped by a Customs and Border Protection agent for speaking Spanish at a Montana convenience store have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that their constitutional rights were violated during the May incident.
The women, Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, are nurses at a senior care center in Havre, a majority-white town of under 10,000 residents near the U.S. border with Canada.
The suit centers on the pair’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure as well as their Fifth Amendment right to due process. In a blog post for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the women, Suda said she was motivated to take legal action as a lesson for her children.
“I want them to not only be proud of being bilingual, but I also want them to know that they live in a country where people can’t just be stopped and interrogated based on how they look and sound,” she wrote.
After putting their kids to bed the evening of May 16, Suda and Hernandez went to the gym together, per the suit filed Thursday. They stopped at the Town Pump, a local convenience store, for eggs and milk on their way home. Because border agents are a common sight in town, Suda wrote, when one agent stood behind them in line, Hernandez greeted him even though he was a stranger.
In response, the women say that the agent asked where they were born and demanded to see identification before they could pay for the groceries. Suda and Hernandez were born into Spanish-speaking households in Texas and California, respectively.
“Ma’am, the reason I asked you for your ID is because I came in here and saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here,” the agent can be heard saying in a video Suda recorded.
“It has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominately English-speaking,” he said.
The women say they were detained for a total of around 40 minutes, primarily standing in the parking lot by the agent’s patrol vehicle. When the agent’s supervisor arrived at one point, Suda asked whether CBP would have stopped her for speaking French.
The supervisor allegedly replied, “No, we don’t do that.”
Following the incident, which was picked up by national news outlets, Suda says she has faced harassment, including being yelled at in restaurants and bars by people calling her “an illegal.” She says her 8-year-old daughter is afraid to speak Spanish “and has started responding to me in English when I ask her questions.”
Suda and Hernandez are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana to prevent CBP from stopping or detaining anyone else on the basis of “race, accent and/or speaking Spanish, except where the seizure is based on a specific and reliable suspect description.” They are also seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.