US women detained for speaking Spanish sue border agency

Martha Hernandez (left) and Ana Suda (AP)

Two US women detained by a border patrol agent in the state of Montana after he heard them speaking Spanish in a grocery store have sued the country's border protection agency.

Video of the incident - which took place last May in the small town of Havre - showed Agent Paul O'Neal tell Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez that he had asked to see their identification as it was unusual to hear Spanish speakers in the state, which borders Canada.

"It has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it's predominately English speaking," he said.

"It's not illegal, it's just very unheard of up here," he told the women.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed suit against US Customs and Border Protection on behalf of the women, who live in Havre.

Suda and Hernandez say in the lawsuit that O'Neal detained them for 40 minutes.

California native Hernandez and Suda, who was born in Texas, said they were standing in line to buy milk and eggs when the agent - who was standing behind them - commented on Hernandez's accent, and asked the women where they were born.

"I asked, 'Are you serious'?" Suda said, according to the lawsuit. "Agent O'Neal responded that he was 'dead serious'."

The two women say they were then asked to show identification and questioned outside the store, before eventually being released.

"The incident itself is part of a broader pattern that we've seen of abusive tactics by border patrol which has gotten worse since the Trump administration, which has left border patrol officers feeling emboldened to take actions like this," Cody Wofsy, an attorney with the ACLU, told AFP.

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