U.S. citizen questioned by Border Patrol in small Montana town f - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

U.S. citizen questioned by Border Patrol in small Montana town for speaking Spanish

Posted: Updated:
HAVRE, Mont. -

Two U.S. citizens were questioned by a Border Patrol officer in Montana for speaking Spanish while stopped at a gas station. 

Ana Suda told the Washington Post she and friend Mimi Hernandez, both Mexican-Americans, ran out to a gas station convenience store for milk and eggs just after midnight in Havre, Montana and started conversing in Spanish while waiting to pay. That's when a Border Patrol agent asked for identification. 

Suda recorded some of her interaction with the Agent, who identified himself as Agent O'Neal.

“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 video.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Monday it is looking into an incident.

A representative from U.S. Customs and Border Protection told The Post the agency is reviewing the incident to ensure all appropriate policies were followed. Border Patrol agents are trained to decide to question individuals based on a variety of factors, the agency added.

“I was so embarrassed … being outside in the gas station, and everybody’s looking at you like you’re doing something wrong. I don’t think speaking Spanish is something criminal, you know?” Suda said. “My friend, she started crying. She didn’t stop crying in the truck. And I told her, we are not doing anything wrong.”

The Customs & Border Protection website provides the following information:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Border Patrol is responsible for securing the U.S. border between the ports of entry. To do this, they use a layered approach that includes patrolling the border itself, (including the use of electronic surveillance devices), patrolling nearby areas and neighborhoods where illegal immigrants can quickly fade into the general population, and conducting checkpoints - both stationary and temporary.

The authority for this is based on the Immigration and Nationality Act 287(a)(3) and copied in 8 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 287 (a)(3), which states that Immigration Officers, without a warrant, may "within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States...board and search for aliens in any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railcar, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle. 8 CFR 287 (a)(1) defines reasonable distance as 100 air miles from the border.

Two key court decisions affirm the authority of the Border patrol to operate checkpoints and to question occupants of vehicles about their citizenship, request document proof of immigration status, and make quick observations of what is in plain view in the interior of the vehicle.

Border Patrol checkpoint case law has provided the basis for numerous other checkpoints beneficial to the public, such as DUI checkpoints, driver's license/proof of registration checkpoints, etc.

Border Patrol checkpoints do not give Border Patrol Agents carte blanche to automatically search persons and their vehicles, other then in the manner described above. In order to conduct a legal search under the Fourth Amendment, the agents must develop particularly probable cause to conduct a lawful search. Probable cause can be developed from agent observations, records checks, non-intrusive canine sniffs and other established means. Motorist's may consent to a search, but are not required to do so.

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