They were just chatting in Spanish — but two U.S. citizens say that's what caused a Border Patrol agent in northern Montana to stop them and ask for ID. Now, one of the women says she plans to sue.
Ana Suda and her friend Mimi Hernandez, both Mexican Americans, were making a late night run to a gas station in the town of Havre to pick up milk and eggs on May 16, they told The Washington Post. The two conversed in Spanish while shopping.
A Border Patrol agent then interrupted Suda, she told the paper.
“We were just talking, and then I was going to pay,” said Suda. “I looked up [and saw the agent], and then after that, he just requested my ID. I looked at him like, ‘Are you serious?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, very serious.’”
Suda then began recording the interaction with the agent on her phone. In the video, the agent says he specifically stopped the two because he overheard their conversation in Spanish.
“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,” the agent can be heard saying in the video.
The agent then says that the situation isn't racial profiling.
“It has nothing to do with that,” he said to Suda. “It’s the fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”
Despite providing valid identification, Suda and Hernandez were kept in the store's parking lot for between 30 and 45 minutes. Both said the encounter made them feel upset and anxious.
“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?” Suda said. “My friend, she started crying. She didn’t stop crying in the truck. And I told her, we are not doing anything wrong.”
Suda now says both she and her daughter are scared to speak Spanish in public.
“She speaks Spanish, and she speaks English,” Suda told The Washington Post. “When she saw the video, she was like, ‘Mom, we can’t speak Spanish anymore?’ I said ‘No. You be proud. You are smart. You speak two languages.’ This is more for her ... I feel like if I speak Spanish, somebody is going to say something to me. It’s different after something like this because you start thinking and thinking.”
In an interview with KRTV, a Montana-based news station, Suda said her husband, a former probation officer with the Montana Department of Correction, found the situation to be suspicious.
“He thinks it is very bad what this guy was doing because he does not have the right to do it," she told the station.
United States Customs and Border Protection is reviewing the incident.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States,” the agency said in a statement to the Washington Post. “Although most Border Patrol work is conducted in the immediate border area, agents have broad law enforcement authorities and are not limited to a specific geography within the United States. They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence.”
Border Patrol agents' authority isn't limited just to actual border crossings. They actually have authority within 100 miles of any U.S. border. However, even within these zones, agents "cannot pull anyone over without 'reasonable suspicion' of an immigration violation or crime (reasonable suspicion is more than just a 'hunch')," according to ACLU's website. In reality, agents often act far beyond the limits of their power, says the ACLU.
[Photo: Border Patrol by MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images]