A pair of Montana women, both United States citizens, were detained by a Border Patrol agent last week after he overheard them speaking Spanish in "a predominantly English-speaking state."
Ana Suda and her friend Mimi Hernández made a late-night visit to a convenience store in Havre, Montana, about 35 miles from the Canadian border, when a United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent who identified himself as Agent O’Neal asked for their identification.
Suda, who was born in El Paso, Texas, told the agent he was racially profiling them and began filming the encounter with her cell phone.
"It had nothing to do with that," the officer said in response to Suda’s accusation of racial profiling. "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."
"I was so embarrassed…being outside in the gas station, and everybody’s looking at you like you’re doing something wrong," Suda told The Washington Post. "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."
There are over 2,000 Border Patrol agents working in areas near the Canadian border, according to agency figures, including 183 in Havre. By contrast, some 16,600 agents patrol Southwest border states. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes, CBP agents have the authority to operate within 100 miles of any U.S. border.
A spokesman for CBP said the agency was aware of the incident and reviewing the officer’s actions. "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," the agency told The Washington Post. "They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence."
But Philadelphia, Pa.-based civil rights attorney Jonathan Feinberg questioned the agent’s motive in the case of Suda and Hernández, noting that, in the policy outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, CBP agents are barred from racial profiling.
"That was surprising to me to see that very frank admission that it was the basis for the stop," Feinberg told The New York Times. "It doesn’t matter if you are in Midtown Manhattan or Havre, Montana, if you speak a language other than English, it doesn’t give rise to any suspicion that you are in the country illegally."