Two women who were detained by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent for speaking Spanish at a grocery store in Montana are suing the agency.
Mimi Hernandez and Ana Suda filed the lawsuit on Thursday with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after May’s incident, which was recorded and went viral.
In the footage, CBP agent Paul O’Neal can be heard telling the women — both American citizens — “I saw that you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here.”
O’Neal also says the women are being detained because of “speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”
After one of the women asks O’Neal whether it’s “illegal to speak Spanish in Montana,” the CBP agent replies: “It’s not illegal. It’s just very unheard of up here.”
According to the lawsuit, Suda was also told by O’Neal’s supervisor that CBP wouldn’t have detained them for speaking French, even though Havre is near the U.S.-Canada border.
Since the incident, the women claim to have endured harassment in the community where both reside. Suda says her eight-year-old daughter is now afraid to speak Spanish in public.
“In some ways, it would have just been easier to stay quiet about the incident,” Suda recently told the ACLU. “Maybe life would have gone back to normal, but then I think about my kids. I want them to not only be proud of being bilingual, but I also want them to know that they live in a country where people can’t just be stopped and interrogated based on how they look and sound.”
CBP agents are granted wide authority to operate anywhere within 100 miles of the border, an area that includes nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population.