Border agent questions former El Pasoan for speaking Spanish

A Border Patrol agent in Montana was recorded on cellphone video telling two women that he detained them because they were speaking Spanish in a store. The women are both U.S. citizens.

Ana Suda, El Paso native according to her Facebook profile, recorded last week's incident at a convenience store in Havre.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are reviewing an encounter between a Border Patrol agent and two women who were speaking Spanish at a gas station in northern Montana, the agency said Monday. Allegations have been made before of law-enforcement officers in Montana racially profiling people to find out their immigration status.

The women said the agent detained them for about 35 minutes Wednesday in Havre, a small city about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the U.S.-Canada border. Suda asked the agent why he asked for their identifications.

"I recorded him admitting that he just stop(ped) us because we (were) speaking Spanish, no other reason," Suda wrote in a Facebook post published early Wednesday. "Remember do NOT speak Spanish sounds like is illegal."

Suda didn't respond to our messages sent Monday.

Suda: "Can you tell us in the video please why you asked us for our ID's please?"

Agent: "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."

Suda: "OK."

Agent: "Just running your name and date of birth."

Suda: "Just because of our profile right?

Agent: "No."

Suda: "Racial profile?"

Agent: "It has nothing to do with that. 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: "OK. Sounds good. Can we have your name also?"

Agent: "Yes sir. It's agent O'Neil."

Suda: "So it's illegal to speak Spanish in Montana?"

Agent: "No ma'am it's not illegal it's just very unheard of up here."

Suda: "Really? So are you new here?"

Agent: "No ma'am I've been up here for a while."

Suda: "Oh, really?"

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman declined to answer questions about the incident. Instead they released a statement that said the incident is being reviewed to ensure that 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. 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. Decisions to question individuals are based on a variety of factors for which Border Patrol agents are well-trained. This incident is being reviewed to ensure that all appropriate policies were followed.

Border Patrol agents are authorized by law to make warrantless stops within a "reasonable distance" from the border — defined as 100 miles (160 kilometers) under federal regulations. That broad authority has led to complaints of racial profiling by agents who board buses and trains and stop people at highway checkpoints.

Havre, which has just under 10,000 residents and is near two Native American reservations, has a mostly white population, with just 4 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census.

It is typically a quiet posting for the Border Patrol. Last year, the 183 agents in the Havre sector made 39 arrests — just .01 percent of the 310,531 arrests made nationwide made by Border Patrol agents. Eleven of those 39 people arrested were Mexican.

Last week's confrontation happened within a day of the posting of another video showing a New York attorney ranting against Spanish speaking restaurant workers and threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have them "kicked out of my country."

A federal lawsuit filed last month claims that Havre border patrol agents detained for nearly 24 hours a newlywed woman four months pregnant and her husband from Mexico in 2016, even though both had shown agents documentation that showed they were allowed to be in the country. Customs and Border Protection has not yet filed a response to the civil claims of false arrest and imprisonment, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In 2015, the Montana Highway Patrol established a policy forbidding the detention of a person based to verify his status, settling a lawsuit alleging that troopers routinely pulled over people for minor infractions to do just that.

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