A lawsuit brought against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has accused the federal law enforcement agency of targeting Spanish speakers. The two American women suing Border Patrol allege they were detained for speaking Spanish while they were at a grocery store in Montana.
In a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on Thursday, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez alleged they were "singled out, detained, and interrogated" by Border Patrol Agent Paul O'Neal on May 16. They've alleged that O'Neal told them he'd detained them "because he heard them speaking Spanish." According to the lawsuit, O'Neal "offered no other jurisdiction for their detention, and there was no reason to believe that either Ms. Suda or Ms. Hernandez had violated any law." A CBP official tells Bustle the agency can't comment on pending litigation.
In video footage of the incident recorded via phone by Suda, O'Neal can he heard telling her: "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," NBC News has reported.
The lawsuit goes on to accuse O'Neal of violating both the women's Fourth Amendment rights as well as their constitutional right to equal protection. "Agent O'Neal singled them out based on race, relying on their use of Spanish as a justification and proxy for race," the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit notes that both women were born in the United States and are thus U.S. citizens.
While their interaction with CBP took less than an hour, Suda has alleged it had far-reaching consequences for her, Hernandez, and both of their families. "I didn't think it was possible for one incident to change our lives, but that's exactly what happened," Suda wrote in a blog post published by the ACLU on Thursday. "After the video of the stop was picked up by the news, Mimi and my families have been harassed repeatedly for speaking out."
After receiving hateful messages from people living across the country, Suda said, "The worst was what happened in our own town, a place I considered home." She claims she has been yelled at and called "an illegal" while out in public and that her daughter is now afraid to speak Spanish. Suda also claimed Hernandez's high-school-aged son was asked by a teacher if he'd brought his ID to class.
While Suda admits that, "in some ways," it may have been "easier" for her and Hernandez to simply stay quiet, it's her children that have ultimately spurred her to pursue legal action along with the ACLU. "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," she wrote. "I know this is an important fight — not just for Latinx people, but for any community that CBP views with suspicion."