Harassed and ostracized, Havre women who sued Border Patrol may leave town

Martha Hernandez, left, and Ana Suda sued the Border Patrol after being detained for speaking Spanish while buying groceries in Havre. (Photo courtesy of ACLU Montana)

(Havre Herald) Two women who sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being detained for speaking Spanish may leave Havre, as life has become “extremely difficult” for them since filing the lawsuit.

Both women are U.S. citizens, born and raised in this country.

Were they to move, the lawsuit would continue unchanged, the most recent court filing says, since the facts remain “largely unchanged.”

On May 16, 2018, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were detained for about 40 minutes by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at a Havre convenience store.

The women were speaking Spanish while shopping for milk and eggs, which prompted the agent, who was nearby, to ask for their IDs, followed by further discussion outside the store. Part of the incident was recorded and news about it, accompanied by a video, made national headlines.

On Feb. 14, 2019, nine months later, the Montana American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the women against CBP, Agent Paul O’Neil and CBP Commissioner Kevin MCaleenan.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU contends the incident was unconstitutional because there was no legitimate reason to hold the women. Both are American citizens and speaking Spanish is not a crime. Suda was born in Texas and Hernandez in California.

The lawsuit says both women have suffered “emotional and psychological harm” since the event. It also claims the “unjustified and discriminatory seizure” is part of a “longstanding pattern of abusive seizures and investigations” by local Border Patrol agents and goes on to cite a 2014 Havre incident that involved five Latino men and a 2016 incident involving two people with valid immigration papers.

The women are asking for a jury trial, “reasonable” coverage of attorney fees, and money in compensatory and punitive damages for an amount to be proven at trial. They are also asking for a judge’s order that would bar border officials from stopping or detaining anyone based on race, accent or language.

The defendants have asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

One basis for dismissal is that the lawsuit doesn’t meet the threshold needed to prove O’Neil’s behavior, as alleged, is a pattern.

The women have lived in Havre since 2010 (Hernandez) and 2014 (Suda) and this was the only incident of its kind involving either. O’Neil’s attorney contends “their likelihood of future injury is purely speculative.”

Another point for dismissal includes the argument that O’Neil was operating under U.S. sovereign immunity. One core basis of the sovereign immunity argument is that someone performing a government function cannot be subject to liability.

The ACLU shot back, saying the lawsuit should not be dismissed. It points out that O’Neil’s attorney doesn’t even argue that the women’s rights weren’t violated, only that they should not be able to seek declaratory and injunctive relief.

For Suda and Hernandez, the entire incident has soured their relationship with Havre.

Hernandez initially moved to Havre after attending a friend’s wedding and falling “in love with Montana.” Suda’s husband, who works for a branch of U.S. Customs, is from Montana and she moved to Havre for “personal and professional” reasons.

But now, Havre is a “painful place for both women,” the most recent court documents, filed Monday, say. Strangers, neighbors and their children’s classmates have expressed anger at Suda and Hernandez for suing Border Patrol, compounding the effects of the incident and “making them feel even more unwelcome in their own town.”

While they consider moving, Suda is staying in Texas with family and Hernandez spends half her time in Great Falls, the other half in Havre.

Both, however, continue to have family and work-related connections in Havre and “may well return to living there full time.”

Email Paul Dragu at editor@havreherald.com