U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said they are looking into accusations of racial profiling raised in a viral video that showed a Border Patrol agent detaining two U.S. citizens at a Montana gas station because they were speaking Spanish.
Ronald Vitiello, acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, acknowledged Wednesday that he had seen the video, read the incident reports and referred the case to the agency's disciplinary arm for review.
"I want them to do all the fact-finding, and I’m happy to come back and give you the full circumstance about what happened," Vitiello told members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.
"But, bottom line, we expect our people to act with professionalism, and when they don’t, we’re going to hold them accountable for that,” he said.
The nearly 2-minute video shows a woman, identified as Ana Suda, asking a Border Patrol agent why he asked to check their identification after they were about to pay for grocery items at a convenience store.
"Ma'am, the reason I asked you for your IDs is because I came here and I saw that you guys were speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here," the unidentified Border Patrol agent responded.
When Suda accused the agent of racially profiling them based on language, he replied: "It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it's predominantly English speaking."
Montana is one of 32 states that have enacted official English laws that require the state government to provide official documents and laws only in English, according to the advocacy group U.S. English. Those laws do not restrict the ability of people to speak any language they choose; 3.9% of Montanans speak a language other than English at home, according to the most recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The incident took place last week in Havre, Montana, about 35 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. Border Patrol has the authority to detain and question individuals under reasonable suspicion of being in the country illegally within 100 miles of all U.S. borders, which includes both land boundaries and coastlines.
But Wednesday, Vitiello said his agency flat-out forbids officers from using racial profiling to detain or even question individuals they encounter.
These types of incidents don't happen "very often at all," and agents look at a series of factors before approaching someone, he said.
The incident led to an exchange between Vitiello and Rep. Nanette Díaz Barragán, D-Calif., who said Spanish was her first language.
"I get questions now of, ‘Well, does this mean I shouldn’t speak Spanish anymore?’ " she said. "As somebody who’s at CBP, what advice should I give them?"
Vitiello said he has lived near the border for a number of years and also is fluent in Spanish.
"It’s not something people should be concerned about if they’re here legally," he said.
Nonetheless, it's not uncommon for individuals to record agents, as the two women did in this particular case, and Customs and Border Patrol is changing its policies on video recordings for accountability purposes, Vitiello said.
"We’re going to be investing in and deploying a number of cameras in the work space," he said. "Some of those will actually be worn by agents."
The agency's Office of Professional Responsibility is its disciplinary arm and is responsible for looking at officer and agent misconduct and mismanagement, among other things.
Results from its investigations are not always made public, but Vitiello said he would update committee members once the review into this incident was complete.
The two women involved in the Montana case said that even after they showed their IDs, the agent still kept them for about 35 minutes to 45 minutes. Suda told several media outlets she plans to file a lawsuit.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census, an estimated 39 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, including 1.28 million in Arizona. A majority of them are concentrated along Border Patrol's 100-mile-wide enforcement zone along the land borders and coastlines.