Wednesday, November 25, 2020
NBC News reports that two U.S. women who were detained by Customs and Border Protection after they spoke Spanish at a convenience store in Montana two years ago settled their lawsuit against the Trump administration, the American Civil Liberties Union announced yesterday.
The U.S. citizens, Ana Suda and Martha "Mimi" Hernandez, were talking in Spanish as they shopped for food in May 2018 in Havre, a town about 35 miles from the Canadian border. The Border Patrol officer, Paul O'Neal, "singled out, detained, and interrogated" the women "because he heard them speaking Spanish," the lawsuit alleges.
The women recorded their exchange with O'Neal on video. The video, shows Suda asking the officer why he is asking them for their identifications.
"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," O'Neal responds. Suda then asks him whether she and Hernandez are being racially profiled; O'Neal responds no.
"Ana Suda and Martha `Mimi' Hernandez, two American citizens detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for speaking Spanish while shopping at a local convenience store in Havre, Montana, have reached a settlement in their lawsuit against the Trump administration. Their lawsuit brought to light systemic racism on the northern border.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and law firm Crowley Fleck PLLP represent the two women.
Suda and Hernandez were simply standing in line waiting to pay for groceries when CBP Agent Paul O’Neill approached them, commented on Hernandez’s accent, and asked where the women were born. They responded Texas and California, respectively. The agent then ordered them to show identification, and they immediately presented their valid Montana driver’s licenses.
Through the lawsuit, it was revealed that local CBP agents have engaged in a longstanding pattern of abusive seizures and investigations. Agents from the local administrative CBP unit — known as the `Havre Sector' — have repeatedly targeted Latinx individuals without justification, often based on their race. One such incident led to a published Ninth Circuit opinion holding that CBP agents illegally detained a group of men in Havre in 2006.
In materials produced as a result of the lawsuit, CBP agents admitted they routinely profile non-white individuals in the Havre Sector. According to a CBP supervisor, `We have a lot of agents here and nobody really has much to do.'
He recounted seeing `two Mexicans' while off duty in a local mall. He was about to report the two shoppers to CBP so that the agency could send an agent — only to find that another off-duty CBP agent had already made the same report.
For these agents, people are suspicious if they do not fit their profile of a typical resident of Havre — i.e., if they are not white.
Evidence uncovered in the suit also 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.
Through the discovery process, O’Neill also handed over a number of inflammatory and racist text messages confirming his anti-immigrant bias. Watch the video.
`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.
`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.'
`CBP’s behavior was unconscionable and illegal, but sadly not uncommon. This agency must be held accountable,' said Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
The settlement involves a monetary sum. Under the Biden administration, the ACLU will continue to hold the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security accountable to the people."