Technically, the U.S. has no official language. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about that fact — including from people whose jobs depend on them knowing better, like Border Control agents. In rural Montana, a Border Patrol agent detained two women just for speaking Spanish at a gas station, Montana's KRTV News reported.
The women, both of Mexican descent and American citizens by birth, were making a late-night stop for some supplies when the agent asked for their identification and then questioned them for 35 minutes. In an interview with the Washington Post, one of the women, Ana Suda, described the incident.
"We were just talking, and then I was going to pay," Suda said in the interview. "I looked up [and saw the agent], and then after that, he just requested my ID. I looked at him like, 'Are you serious?' He’s like, 'Yeah, very serious.'"
Suda told the Post that after the three of them went out into the parking lot, she began taking video of the exchange and then eventually posted the video to Facebook. When she asked the agent, who identified himself as "Agent O'Neal," why he had detained them, he specifically referenced the fact that they were speaking Spanish.
“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, from off camera, can then be heard asking whether she and her friend, Mimi Hernandez, had just been racially profiled.
“It has nothing to do with that,” the agent then said. “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.”
In a statement to the Washington Post, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that they were reviewing what had taken place, and that Border Control Agents use numerous different factors to decide whether they need to question people.
"Agents have broad law enforcement authorities and are not limited to a specific geography within the United States. They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence,” the spokesperson said.
According to The Hill, the rural town of Havre, Montana, where the incident happened, is very close to the Canadian border. It's a normal thing for Border Control agents to be there because of its proximity, and Havre falls well within the 100-mile range from the border where the ACLU explains that Border Control agents have broad authority to do their work.
The ACLU makes it clear, though, that Border Control agents still can't stop people or search them without "reasonable suspicion," even within that border zone. In her interview with the Post, Suda said that she was planning on getting in touch with the ACLU in order to obtain legal guidance on how she should proceed in the matter.
Suda also told the Post that nothing like this had ever happened to her before. She said that the incident deeply upset her friend Hernandez, and that it led her seven year-old daughter to question whether they should continue speaking Spanish.
“[My daughter] speaks Spanish, and she speaks English,” Suda told the Post. “When she saw the video, she was like, ‘Mom, we can’t speak Spanish anymore?’ I said ‘No. You be proud. You are smart. You speak two languages.’ This is more for her.”
Suda also said that she didn't see the issue as limited to herself and her own experience. “I just don’t want this to happen anymore,” Suda told the Post. “I want people to know they have the right to speak whatever language they want. I think that’s the most important part, to help somebody else.”