(GREAT FALLS) Two U.S. citizens were stopped and questioned by a Border Patrol agent last week for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Havre – and the story and video has now gone viral, with articles on CBS News, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail, New York Daily News, Telemundo, and more.
Ana Suda – who was born in Texas and has now lived in Havre for several years – stopped with a friend at a Town Pump store to buy milk and eggs. They were speaking Spanish when a Border Patrol agent asked them for their documents. Suda said she paid for her items, gave the agent her identification, and she started recording video of the incident in the parking lot.
When Suda asked why he wanted to see their identification, the agent said, "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."
Suda says they are still in shock that this happened; she told KRTV: "My family was asking me, because my family is still in Texas, and they were asking me, how is Montana about this? I said I have never had a problem before. I say Montana is perfect. I love the people here, the people are so nice. It is nicer than other states. I can not believe this happened."
Suda told KRTV that even her husband, a former probation officer with the Montana Department of Correction who is in law enforcement, is questioning what happened: “He thinks it is very bad what this guy was doing because he does not have the right to do it.”
The officer identified himself as Agent O’Neal in the video, and said that his actions were not racially-motivated. Suda said that the officer let them leave after about 35 minutes.
Suda told The Washington Post she was planning legal action following the incident, and said, "I was so embarrassed…being outside in the gas station, and everybody’s looking at you like you’re doing something wrong. I don’t think speaking Spanish is something criminal, you know? My friend, she started crying. She didn’t stop crying in the truck. And I told her, we are not doing anything wrong."
A spokesperson for Customs & Border Patrol provided the following information to KRTV: "The Decisions to question individuals are based on a variety of factors for which Border Patrol agents are well-trained. This incident is being reviewed to ensure that all appropriate policies were followed. Agents are not looking for one factor, but a multitude of indicators that when put together raise a reasonable suspicion of illegal alienage. CBP activities comply with DHS policy on non-discrimination in law enforcement activities."
The spokesperson then directed us to the CBP website that provides the following information:
Consistent with the DHS policy, CBP personnel may use race or ethnicity when a compelling governmental interest is present and its use is narrowly tailored to that interest. National security is per se a compelling interest, but use of race and ethnicity to serve compelling interest must still be narrowly tailored. Race or ethnicity-based information that is specific to particular suspects or incidents or ongoing criminal activities, schemes, or enterprises may be considered. These standards are designed to ensure that racial and ethnic stereotypes will not be used in conducting stops, searches and other law enforcement activities, but that law enforcement officers rely on specific and trustworthy information to make law enforcement decisions.
Those principles relate to the consideration of race or ethnicity, which is distinguished from the consideration of nationality. Using nationality for anti terrorism, customs, or immigration activities in which nationality is expressly relevant to the administration or enforcement of a statute, regulation, or executive order to trigger screening, inspection, or investigative steps is entirely appropriate and needs no further justification.
In addition, this policy does not in any way limit the individualized discretionary use of nationality as a screening, investigation, or enforcement factor. Therefore, the use of nationality is appropriate for the vast majority of situations encountered by front-line CBP personnel and those supporting them in their day to day operations.
In circumstances outside the context of front-line CBP operations and work in support thereof, if nationality is not expressly relevant, DHS and CBP policy is to use nationality as an investigative or screening criterion only in situations where such consideration is based on an assessment of intelligence and risk and in which alternatives do not meet security needs and only as long as necessary. The use of race and ethnicity information in violation of this policy may subject CBP employees to discipline under the Standards of Conduct.
We will update you as we get more information.