GREAT FALLS — Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez, two Americans who were detained by a U.S. Customs & Border Protection officer for speaking Spanish while shopping at a convenience store in Havre, have reached a settlement in their lawsuit.
The ACLU of Montana said in a news release on Tuesday that Suda and Hernandez were waiting to pay for groceries when CBP agent Paul O’Neill approached them, commented on Hernandez’s accent, and asked where they were born. They told him Texas and California, respectively. The agent then ordered them to show identification, and they immediately presented their valid Montana driver’s licenses. O’Neill detained them in the parking lot, and they began recording video of him and asked why they were being detained. He said it was because they were “speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominantly English speaking.” O’Neill offered no other justification for detaining and interrogating them.
The ACLU of Montana said that through the lawsuit, evidence uncovered revealed that O’Neill was a member of the now defunct “I’m 10-15” Facebook group where CBP agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas, and posted a vulgar illustration depicting U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant.
According to the ACLU, O’Neill also handed over a number of inflammatory and racist text messages that they said confirmed his anti-immigrant bias.
“As if the racism they experienced at the hands of CBP agents were not enough, our clients also bore the brunt of local backlash as a result of coming forward. They both ultimately left Havre for fear of their families’ safety,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana.
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CBP said in an email to MTN News: “CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe. CBP officers and agents are trained to enforce U.S. laws uniformly and fairly and they do not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. CBP is committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public, and has memorialized its commitment to nondiscrimination in existing policies, including the February 2014 CBP Policy on Nondiscrimination in Law Enforcement Activities and all other Administered Programs. This policy prohibits the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances. CBP’s Standards of Conduct further highlights CBP’s prohibition on bias-motivated conduct and explicitly requires that ‘Employees will not act or fail to act on an official matter in a manner which improperly takes into consideration an individual’s race, color, age, sexual orientation, religion, sex, national origin, or disability, union membership, or union activities.’ As noted in Paragraph 4 of the settlement agreement it: ‘… is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants, or employees, and it is specifically denied that they are liable to the plaintiffs.’ ”
When asked about O'Neill, CBP replied: "“We do not share details on any specific individuals’ employment, however as with any allegation of misconduct the matter was investigated and there was with no corrective action determined required.”
“We stood up to the government because speaking Spanish is not a reason to be racially profiled and harassed. I am proud to be bilingual, and I hope that as a result of this case CBP takes a hard look at its policies and practices,” said Suda. “No one else should ever have to go through this again.”
The settlement involves a monetary sum; the amount has not been disclosed.
(MAY 16, 2018) 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.” The incident triggered an outpouring of emotions on social media : people condemning the agent for what they believe is racial profiling, and people praising the agent for working to protect the country from possible criminal activity.
“I am OK if they do their job, but this is profiling,” Suda told MTN News on Thursday. “He asked where we were born so I said, ‘Are you serious?’ He was like, ‘Yes, I am very serious.’ I said I was born in El Paso, Texas, and my friend said she was born in El Centro, California,” Suda said.
The agent asked for their IDs and that is when Suda decided to start recording him in the parking lot of the gas station.
Suda said she was shocked and sad, but she never got mad about the situation. “I want to know more. I want to know why you stopped me. This is weird to me because I know I was not doing anything wrong,” Suda said.
Suda says after about 17 minutes, she asked for her ID back, but the agent told her no, so at that point Suda considered herself to be detained. Suda said that the officer let them leave after about 35 minutes.
“A lot of people on Facebook say you have the choice to not give it to them, but you don’t,” Suda said.
Suda says her daughter has now asked her if she should continue to speak Spanish. “I want to be able to see my daughter do whatever she wants. If she is smart enough to speak another language, she should speak,” Suda said.
Suda is now considering moving from Havre because she does not feel as comfortable after this incident. Suda told MTN News the day after the incident: “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 MTN News 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.”
Suda says she is meeting with the ACLU to find out about her rights and what next steps she might take.