Two U.S. citizens said they were detained last week by a Border Patrol agent in Montana after he overheard them speaking Spanish to each other in a convenience store.
Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez said they’d popped into the store in Havre, a small town near the border with Canada, early Wednesday morning when they were approached by a uniformed Border Patrol agent, KRTV reported.
The two women, who are Mexican American, had been chatting in Spanish while waiting in line to pay for eggs and milk when ― to their incredulity ― the agent asked them for their IDs.
“I looked at him like, ‘Are you serious?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, very serious.’” Suda, who was born in Texas, told The Washington Post of the encounter.
Outside, in the parking lot, Suda began filming the agent on her phone. She asked him why he’d been compelled to detain them. He told her that their use of Spanish had caught his attention.
“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 can be heard saying in the cellphone footage.
He then denied that the women had been racially profiled.
“It has nothing to do with that,” the agent said in the clip. “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.”
Suda told MTN News that even after seeing their IDs, the agent did not let them leave the parking lot for about 35 minutes. She said her husband, a former probation officer with the Montana Department of Corrections, criticized the agent for overstepping the limits of his position.
“He thinks it is very bad what this guy was doing because he does not have the right to do it,” Suda told the outlet.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection told HuffPost on Monday that the agency was reviewing the incident to ensure “all appropriate policies were followed.”
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States,” the rep said in a statement. “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. They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence.”
According to the CBP website, the Havre Border Patrol Sector, headquartered in Havre, is “responsible for 456 miles of border area between Montana and Canada, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, as well as, part of Idaho.”
Suda, who plans to take legal action over the incident, said she and Hernandez were deeply shaken by the encounter and remained in shock.
“My family was asking me, because my family is still in Texas, and they were asking me, how is Montana about this? I said I have never had a problem before,” she told MTN News. “I say Montana is perfect. I love the people here, the people are so nice. It is nicer than other states. I cannot believe this happened.”
She said she was especially alarmed by her 7-year-old daughter’s reaction to the incident.
“When she saw the video, she was like, ‘Mom, we can’t speak Spanish anymore?’” Suda told the Post. “I said ‘No. You be proud. You are smart. You speak two languages.’ This is more for her.”
People on social media have reacted with horror to Suda’s video and story.
“Since when is speaking a foreign language criminally suspect?” asked one Twitter user on Sunday.
This story has been updated with comments from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.