2 US Citizens Detained for Speaking Spanish in Montana

In May, 2018, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were shopping at a convenience store in Havre, Montana – 20 miles from the U.S.- Canada border — when they were detained by a Border Patrol agent and asked to show identification.

The reason? They were speaking Spanish. Who knew it was a crime to speak Spanish?

The two bilingual women are American citizens, one born in Texas and one in California. They have lived in Havre for several years, raising their families and working as certified nurse assistants at a local medical center.

On this evening, Suda and Hernandez had gone to the gym after work before stopping at the Town Pump, a gas station and convenience store. While waiting to pay for eggs and milk, Hernandez said hello to a Border Patrol agent standing behind them. Instead of responding politely, Agent O’Neal noted that she had a strong accent and wanted to know where the two women were born.

They responded to the officer, but he demanded to see some ID. Once they had complied with his request, O’Neal led them outside and ordered them to stand by his Customs and Border Patrol jeep while he radioed in their names and dates of birth.

You can see what happened next in this video:

“So it is illegal to speak Spanish in Montana?” Suda asks O’Neal.

“Well ma’am it’s not illegal, it’s just very unheard of up here,” he replies.

When O’Neal’s supervisor arrived, Suda asked him whether this would have happened if the two women had been speaking French.

“No, we don’t do that,” the supervisor responded, according to a court document.

The whole incident lasted around 40 minutes, and it left Suda and Hernandez exhausted, humiliated and angry.

But the impact didn’t end there. Suda writes:

After the video of the stop was picked up by the news, Mimi (Martha) and my families have been harassed repeatedly for speaking out. We received hateful messages from people across the country, but the worst was what happened in our own town, a place I considered home. At his high school, a teacher asked Mimi’s son whether he had brought ID to class. My 8-year-old daughter is scared to speak Spanish and has started responding to me in English when I ask her questions.

Suda Files Lawsuit Against U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

This is an appalling example of xenophobia and fear-mongering, so it’s not surprising that Suda filed suit against the CBP on February 14. She accused the agency of violating her constitutional rights against unreasonable seizure and equal protection under the law.

The lawsuit, filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, asks a federal district court to demand that the CBP not stop or detain anyone “on the basis of race, accent and/or speaking Spanish” unless these characteristics are part of a specific suspect description. In addition, the suit asks the court to declare that a person’s face or language isn’t enough to justify seizure or detention. Finally, it seeks compensation and punitive damages.

This comes at a time when the Southern Poverty Law Center has just released its annual count of hate groups in the U.S.: The number of such groups rose to a record high — 1,020 — in 2018. This is the fourth straight year of growth, and it coincides precisely with Trump’s campaign and presidency.

As Trump continues to spread fear and hate, and to enact policies to please his base, he gives racists permission to act on their own bigotry. It’s no surprise, then, that the number of white nationalist groups surged by almost 50 percent last year — from 100 to 148.

And CBP agents in Montana think it’s perfectly fine to detain anyone speaking Spanish.

Ironically, plenty of U.S. employers seek out bilingual employees — particularly in healthcare settings, where Suda and Martinez work. 

This is racial profiling in its most extreme form. Anyone in the U.S. has the constitutional right to speak any language freely. 

Take Action!

We must stand up to these horrific displays of injustice. If you agree, please sign my Care2 petition to show your public support for Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez

Creating a Care2 petition is easy. If you have an issue you care deeply about, why not start your own petition? Here are some guidelines to help you get started and soon the Care2 community will be signing up to support you.


Photo Credit: Getty Images


Elaine W
Elaine W1 months ago

I wish it was impossible for this to happen.

heather g
heather g1 months ago

What admirable ladies to stand up for their rights and involve the media.

Karen H
Karen H1 months ago

Liliana Garcia, I wish I could give you more stars. Marco Rubio is - unfortunately - my misrepresentative in the Senate (the other is Rick "Voldemort" Scott). He's a classless whore of the lobbyists who line his pockets and buy into his precious agenda.

Karen H
Karen H1 months ago

Jenn C, by your reasoning, if you went on vacation to Germany, you would be expected to speak German. If you went to Italy, you would be expected to speak Italian. Besides, Americans do NOT speak English - we speak American, which is very different. Trump's xenophobia has spread. I think the "Americans" who want everyone to speak American are afraid someone is talking about them, so they feel entitled to know what's being said. I wish I could speak more than one language, but, alas, I'm only semi-fluent in Gibberish.

Sherri S
Sherri S1 months ago

Let them try that is South Florida, where Spanish dominates.

Callie R
Callie R1 months ago

It's just more bullying by people who hold hate inhigh esteem. I would be that they even vote Republican and wath Fox news. And like all bullys they are cowards. Thank you for the post.

pam w
pam w1 months ago

Once again, Jenn C demonstrates her (self-described) Christian motives. What do you mean when you say ''she has no business speaking the language of a vast number of illegals...." ? MILLIONS OF PEOPLE SPEAK SPANISH HERE, Jenn...which might be one reason you left California, right?

Janis K
Janis K1 months ago


Leo Custer
Leo C1 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Toni W
Toni W1 months ago