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, who are U.S. citizens, 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. One of the women, Ana 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.”
Neither Suda nor her friend, Mimi Hernandez, answered their cellphones or responded to text messages on Monday. In Suda’s video of the encounter, posted by KRTV of Great Falls, the agent says speaking Spanish “is very unheard of up here.”
Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jason Givens declined to answer questions about the incident. He released a statement that said the incident is being reviewed to ensure that all appropriate policies were followed.
“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,” the statement said. “They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence.”
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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