ACLU files lawsuit on behalf of Havre women questioned by Border Patrol

Posted at 12:29 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-14 14:35:26-05

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and law firm Crowley Fleck PLLP filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of two women, who were questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a convenience store in Havre in May.

A press release from the ACLU states the women, Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, were standing in line when a Border Patrol agent approached them, commented on Hernandez’s accent, and asked where they were born. They responded Texas and California, respectively.

The ACLU stated the agent then ordered the women to show identification and the women, who are U.S. citizens, presented their valid Montana driver’s licenses. The ACLU press release continued that there was no reason to believe that either woman had violated any law, but the agent detained them in the parking lot.

The women began filming the agent, asking him why he targeted them. He replied that it “has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominately English speaking,” according to the press release.

The lawsuit cites violations of the Fourth Amendment, because there was no legitimate reason to seize the women; and of equal protection, because the agent singled the women out based on race, relying on their use of Spanish as a justification and proxy for race. Indeed, according to the complaint, the agent’s supervisor confirmed that French speakers would not be similarly detained.

The ACLU wrote that even though the women and their families have lived in Havre for years, they have since been shunned and harassed by other town residents. Suda said her daughter is now also afraid to speak Spanish, asking, “Mommy, are you sure we can speak Spanish?” When she speaks with her daughter in Spanish, her child answers her in English, “because she is scared.”

The lawsuit seeks to permanently block CBP from stopping and detaining people on the basis of race, accent, and/or speaking Spanish, according to the press release.

Court documents state the plaintiffs are seeking the following:

  1. Preliminarily and permanently enjoin Defendants from stopping and/or detaining individuals on the basis of race, accent, and/or speaking Spanish, except where the seizure is based on a specific and reliable suspect description matching such characteristics.
  2. Declare that race, accent, and language cannot create suspicion sufficient to justify seizure and/or detention, except where the seizure is based on a specific and reliable suspect description matching such characteristics.
  3. Compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial.
  4. Punitive damages in an amount to be proven at trial.
  5. Costs and reasonable attorney fees.
  6. Such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable.
Courtesy: Brooke Swaney, ACLU of Montana

(May 25, 2018) It’s been just over one week since Ana Suda and her friend were stopped by a Border Patrol agent at a convenience store in Havre.

Suda moved to Havre four years ago and says she’s always felt welcomed by everyone on the Hi-Line.

Suda says that some people are saying she is overreacting to the incident in the early morning hours of May 16th.

BACKGROUND (MAY 16): 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.