Panel erupts over Border Patrol agent protocol

CNN's Don Lemon spars with CNN political commentator Tara Setmayer about whether Ana Suda, a US citizen, was racially profiled after she was stopped by a Border Patrol agent who overheard Suda speaking Spanish to a friend.

Posted: May 22, 2018 9:38 PM
Updated: May 22, 2018 9:38 PM

A US citizen who was stopped and asked for identification after a US Border Patrol agent in Montana heard her speaking Spanish says she wants the American Civil Liberties Union's help over the incident so her 7-year-old daughter can be proud to be bilingual.

Ana Suda, who was born in Texas, recorded the encounter last week on her cell phone after the agent asked her and her friend, Mimi Hernandez, who is from California, for their IDs while they waited in line to pay for groceries at a gas station.

The video shows Suda asking why the agent questioned them.

"Ma'am, the reason I asked for your IDs is because I came in here and saw that you guys were speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here," he says of the area about 35 miles south of the US-Canada border.

Suda then asks the agent whether she and her friend are being racially profiled.

"It has nothing to do with that," the agent replies. "It has to do with the fact that you were speaking Spanish in the store in a state that is predominantly English-speaking."

The incident, which Suda said lasted about 40 minutes, took place in the town of Havre, where Suda has lived for several years, CNN affiliate KTVQ reported.

Border agency reviewing incident

US Customs and Border Protection is now reviewing the encounter, the agency told CNN Monday.

"US Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States," the agency said in a statement. "Although most Border Patrol work is conducted in the immediate border area, agents have broad law enforcement authorities and are not limited to a specific geography within the United States."

"They have the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence. Decisions to question individuals are based on a variety of factors for which Border Patrol agents are well-trained. This incident is being reviewed to ensure that all appropriate policies were followed."

Asked about the incident on Tuesday, Acting Deputy Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection Ronald D. Vitiello said he was aware of the video.

"There is a policy in the federal government and law enforcement against racial profiling," he said.

"We've asked our office of professional responsibility to review the matter, so I don't want to pre-judge it," he added. "Bottom line, we expect our people to act with professionalism and when they don't, we're going to hold them to account for that."

The ACLU on Monday tweeted in reference to Suda's story that racial profiling is against the law.

"Speaking Spanish is not a valid reason for Border Patrol to question or detain you," the civil rights organization stated. "The Constitution prohibits all law enforcement agencies, including @CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) from racial profiling and arbitrary searches and detentions."

Spanish-speaking congressman wants answers

US Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, on Monday sent a letter to the Customs and Border Protection chief demanding answers about agency policies.

"What exactly are the agency's policies regarding probable cause?" he wrote, citing news reports of Suda's experience. "How are the actions of agents reviewed, evaluated, recorded, and held accountable for abusing their authority, for both minor and major violations?

"Furthermore, I ask that CBP review its current policies and training procedures to ensure the civil liberties of law-abiding American citizens are respected and upheld."

Curbelo noted that he speaks Spanish regularly to his family, including two young daughters. "Young people who are attempting to learn a second language as part of their education often times practice outside of the classroom," he wrote. "The language someone speaks, regardless of geographic area, is not enough to suspect that an immigration violation has occurred."

The United States has no official language. And though English is spoken in most homes -- and used for government documents, court proceedings and business contracts -- at least 350 languages are spoken in the country, according to the US Census Bureau.

About 4% of Montana residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the US Census.

'He asked me where I was born'

Suda had gone to the store with her friend to buy milk and eggs, she told CNN's Don Lemon on Monday. She was next in line to pay when she encountered the Border Patrol agent.

"He looked at me, and he asked me where I was born," she said. "So, I look at him, and I say, 'Are you serious?' He's like, 'I am very serious.'

"I said, 'I was born in El Paso, Texas.' And he look at my friend, and my friend said, 'I was born in El Centro, California.' So, he said, 'I need to see your ID,'" Suda said.

She said the agent told her to show her ID before she paid for the goods. While he was looking at it, she began recording the encounter on her cell phone, asking him to say on video why he'd asked for her identification card.

"I believe they have to have a reason to stop you, not just because you speak Spanish," Suda told Lemon. "I don't believe that is a reason. I don't believe that's a crime."

Suda said her daughter, 7, saw the video, then asked her mom whether they couldn't speak Spanish anymore. It was that response, Suda told CNN in a separate interview, that prompted her to seek help from the ACLU.

"This broke my heart," she said, adding that she told her daughter, "'You need to be proud. You need to speak English, speak Spanish, whatever you want. You are so smart. You speak two languages!'

"This is very important," Suda said. "The community needs to know speaking Spanish is not a crime."

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