They Spoke Spanish in a Montana Store. Then a Border Agent Asked for Their IDs.

A Border Patrol agent stopped a pair of friends who were speaking Spanish on Wednesday inside a convenience store in Havre, Mont.

In the small town of Havre, Mont., the Town Pump Convenience Store is about the only shop open after midnight. It was about that time last Wednesday when two friends, Ana Suda, who was out of eggs, and Mimi Hernandez, whose daughter needed milk, walked into the store.

Ms. Suda does not recall what they discussed while they browsed the store, but she knows they conversed in Spanish. That was all it took for a Border Patrol agent also in the store to interject.

“He looked at us and said, ‘Where are you guys born?’ ” Ms. Suda, 37, recalled in an interview on Monday.

Both friends are Mexican-Americans and United States citizens, which they explained to the agent, adding that Ms. Suda was born in El Paso and Ms. Hernandez in Central California. The agent then asked for their identifications.

Shocked by the encounter, Ms. Suda retrieved her cellphone from her car, hit record and confronted the agent as he was relaying their information over a radio inside his sport utility vehicle. They had been racially profiled, Ms. Suda told the agent.

“It had nothing to do with that,” the officer, who identified himself as Agent O’Neal, responded in the cellphone video. “It’s the fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”

After about 20 minutes, the officer returned their driver’s licenses and let them go. But Ms. Suda said Monday that she was not ready to let it go. She planned to file an official complaint with United States Customs and Border Protection.

An agency spokesman declined to discuss the specific episode but said that the officer’s actions were under review.

“U.S. 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,” a spokesman at Customs and Border Protection said in an email on Monday. “Decisions to question individuals are based on a variety of factors for which Border Patrol agents are well-trained.”

President Trump has maintained a longstanding desire to greatly increase enforcement on the borders and deliver on a campaign promise to crack down on immigration. The president’s anger over immigration and the absence of a wall on the southern border with Mexico has spilled out in public this month. He berated the Department of Homeland Security for not doing enough to secure the borders and called some immigrants “animals” during a White House meeting.

The Trump administration’s rhetoric and tough actions on immigration have stoked fear in some communities about it contributing to a rise in discrimination. The day before Ms. Suda’s encounter in Montana, a lawyer in Manhattan was recorded spewing a racist rant in a restaurant because he objected to employees speaking Spanish.

There are more than 19,000 Border Patrol agents in the United States, and nearly all of them roam the rugged, wide-open terrain near the Mexico border, stretching from South Texas to Southern California. But a few thousand agents patrol the country’s northern boundary with Canada, including 183 officers stationed in Havre, a remote agricultural city of 9,000 people about 35 miles south of the border.

The encounter at the Town Pump in Havre highlights the far-reaching power of Border Agents, whose authority goes beyond the immediate border and checkpoints. Their domain extends 100 miles inland from the outline of the United States, a vast area that includes up to 66 percent of the country’s population.

But their reach is limited in one way: They cannot stop people solely because of their race or ethnicity. Jonathan H. Feinberg, a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia, said that courts have found that a person’s language is prohibited in the same way.

“That was surprising to me to see that very frank admission that it was the basis for the stop,” Mr. Feinberg said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter if you are in Midtown Manhattan or Havre, Mont., if you speak a language other than English, it doesn’t give rise to any suspicion that you are in the country illegally.”

Montana is one of the least diverse states. About 90 percent of Montanans are white and an even higher percentage of them speak only English at home, according to the latest census figures. Havre is even less diverse — just 46 people speak only Spanish, making it the most common language after English.

Ms. Suda, who grew up on the other side of El Paso in Juárez, Mexico, has lived in the country for the last 14 years with her husband, who served in the Air Force. She said that the encounter on Wednesday was the first time she had felt profiled by law enforcement.

“People look at you when you speak Spanish, but they never say anything,” she said. “People here, they are very nice people. They are very, very good people in Montana.”

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