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Women detained for speaking Spanish

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Two women who were detained in northern Montana by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents for speaking Spanish while shopping at a convenience store have reached an undisclosed monetary settlement in their lawsuit against the agency, the ACLU of Montana announced Tuesday.

Ana Suda and Martha “Mimi” Hernandez, both U.S. citizens, said their constitutional rights were violated when they were detained in the parking lot outside a the store in the city of Havre for 40 minutes after an agent demanded their identifications.

In settling the case, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it did not admit liability and added in a statement that “the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe.”

The case emerged after Suda took a video of the May 2018 interaction in which she asked Agent Paul O’Neill why he was questioning them.

“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,” O’Neill said in the video. Suda and Hernandez had valid Montana drivers licenses.

O’Neill, and a supervisor who arrived later made it clear through words and actions that the women were not free to leave the convenience store parking lot, ACLU attorney Alex Rate wrote in the lawsuit.

“We stood up to the government because speaking Spanish is not a reason to be racially profile and harassed,” Suda said in a statement provided by the ACLU. “I am proud to be bilingual, and I hope that as a result of this case CBP takes a hard look at its policies and practices. No one else should ever have to go through this again.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in its statement that its workers “are trained to enforce U.S. laws uniformly and fairly and they do not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

It added that the settlement “is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants, or employees, and it is specifically denied that they are liable to the plaintiffs.”

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