US Citizens Briefly Detained by Border Patrol Agent for ‘Speaking Spanish'

Both women are Mexican-American and fluent in Spanish

What to Know

  • Both women are Mexican-American and fluent in Spanish
  • Ana Suda said she felt uncomfortable and afraid and pulled out her cellphone to record the encounter
  • The agent said in the video speaking Spanish "is very unheard of up here"

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are reviewing an encounter between a Border Patrol agent and two U.S. citizens who were detained and questioned after speaking Spanish at a gas station in northern Montana, the agency said Monday.

Ana Suda told NBC News she and her friend Mimi Hernandez made a midnight run Wednesday for milk and eggs at a gas station convenience store in Havre, a small city about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the U.S.-Canada border.

Both women are Mexican-American and fluent in Spanish. Suda said they were chatting in Spanish while waiting in line to pay when the uniformed agent overheard them and allegedly asked them where they were born. 

"I looked at him and I said, 'Are you serious?" Suda told NBC News. "He said, "I'm very serious.'"

Suda said she felt uncomfortable and afraid and pulled out her cellphone to record the encounter. In the video, Suda asks the agent why he asked them for their IDs.

"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 said in the video.

Suda asked if they had been racially profiled and the agent responded, "No." 

Suda, 37, told NBC she was born in El Paso, Texas, but was raised in Mexico. She moved back to the U.S. 14 years ago.

Hernandez was born in central California, she said.

CBP spokesman Jason Givens declined to answer questions about the incident. He released a statement that said the incident is being reviewed to ensure that all appropriate policies were followed.

"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 statement said. "They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence."

However, CBP policy also states that agents cannot stop or detain someone solely based on their race or ethnicity.

Border Patrol agents are authorized by law to make warrantless stops within a "reasonable distance" from the border — defined as 100 miles (160 kilometers) under federal regulations. That broad authority has led to complaints of racial profiling by agents who board buses and trains and stop people at highway checkpoints.

Havre, which has just under 10,000 residents and is near two Native American reservations, has a mostly white population, with just 4 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census.

It is typically a quiet posting for the Border Patrol. Last year, the 183 agents in the Havre sector made 39 arrests — just .01 percent of the 310,531 arrests made nationwide made by Border Patrol agents. Eleven of those 39 people arrested were Mexican.

Suda said she was embarrassed by the encounter because everyone in Havre knows each other.

"When you see somebody stopped by police, what do you think?" she added.

The confrontation happened within a day of the posting of another video showing a New York attorney ranting against Spanish speaking restaurant workers and threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have them "kicked out of my country."

Allegations have been made before of law-enforcement officers in Montana racially profiling people to find out their immigration status. In 2015, the Montana Highway Patrol established a policy forbidding the detention of a person based to verify his status, settling a lawsuit alleging that troopers routinely pulled over people for minor infractions to do just that.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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