The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and law firm Crowley Fleck PLLP filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of two women, who were questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a convenience store in Havre in May.
A press release from the ACLU states the women, Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, were standing in line when a Border Patrol agent approached them, commented on Hernandez’s accent, and asked where they were born. They responded Texas and California, respectively.
The ACLU stated the agent then ordered the women to show identification and the women, who are U.S. citizens, presented their valid Montana driver’s licenses. The ACLU press release continued that there was no reason to believe that either woman had violated any law, but the agent detained them in the parking lot.
The women began filming the agent, asking him why he targeted them. He replied that it “has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominately English speaking,” according to the press release.
The lawsuit cites violations of the Fourth Amendment, because there was no legitimate reason to seize the women; and of equal protection, because the agent singled the women out based on race, relying on their use of Spanish as a justification and proxy for race. Indeed, according to the complaint, the agent’s supervisor confirmed that French speakers would not be similarly detained.
The ACLU wrote that even though the women and their families have lived in Havre for years, they have since been shunned and harassed by other town residents. Suda said her daughter is now also afraid to speak Spanish, asking, “Mommy, are you sure we can speak Spanish?” When she speaks with her daughter in Spanish, her child answers her in English, “because she is scared.”
The lawsuit seeks to permanently block CBP from stopping and detaining people on the basis of race, accent, and/or speaking Spanish, according to the press release.
Court documents state the plaintiffs are seeking the following:
- Preliminarily and permanently enjoin Defendants from stopping and/or detaining individuals on the basis of race, accent, and/or speaking Spanish, except where the seizure is based on a specific and reliable suspect description matching such characteristics.
- Declare that race, accent, and language cannot create suspicion sufficient to justify seizure and/or detention, except where the seizure is based on a specific and reliable suspect description matching such characteristics.
- Compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial.
- Punitive damages in an amount to be proven at trial.
- Costs and reasonable attorney fees.
- Such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable.