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Lawsuit seeks to make detention based on language illegal

About 20 miles south of the Canadian border, at a convenience store in Havre, Montana, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer stopped and detained two local residents who were picking up a few groceries. Their crime? Speaking Spanish.

The two women in question are both U.S.-born American citizens of Latin American descent. After going to the gym together, they stopped by the store to pick up some milk and eggs. The two conversed in Spanish as they waited in line. This fact alone was enough to put CBP agent O’Neal—who was also a customer in the store—on high alert.

The officer asked the women where they were born, then demanded identification. He held them for 40 minutes while he ran further investigations on the women.

"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’Neal said.

The women claim that this is a clear case of racial profiling, which has made them afraid to speak Spanish in public. They have filed a lawsuit against CBP for undisclosed damages. In addition, their suit asks the federal court to issue an official mandate to prevent CBP officers from stopping or detaining anyone on the basis of race or language alone—and that there must be a specific cause for suspicion.

The lawsuit serves as a reminder that all people in the United States—citizens or not—have the right to receive equal protection under the law and to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure. No one may be detained without cause. Hopefully this lawsuit will effect positive change—and will prevent such violations of constitutional rights in the future.

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