GREAT FALLS – Three women were honored as civil liberties champions by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana in Great Falls Saturday night.
Ana Suda, Mimi Hernandez and Melissa Smylie received the 2019 Jeannette Rankin Civil Liberties Award, an honor named after Montana’s first and only U.S. congresswoman who also served as the ACLU of Montana’s first vice president.
The award is given annually to Montanans fighting for “racial justice and educational equity,” according to the ACLU of Montana, who have demonstrated “the strength of character and commitment to principles exemplified by Jeannette Rankin.”
Past honorees have included Denise Juneau, the former Montana superintendent of public instruction and current superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, as well as John Kuglin, the founder of the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline — among many others.
The ceremony was held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art and included speeches from both ACLU leaders and the honorees themselves.
Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez, two of this year’s recipients, gained national attention in May 2018 when their story of being detained by a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer at a gas station in Havre went viral. The women, originally from Texas and California, allege they were detained solely for speaking Spanish in a public place.
Suda and Hernandez filed a lawsuit against CBP in February of this year, and the ACLU of Montana is representing the pair in U.S. District Court in Great Falls.
“This hasn’t been easy for us,” Hernandez said in her acceptance speech Saturday.
According to the suit, released by the ACLU in early 2019, the pair was detained outside of a Town Pump by Paul O’Neal, a CBP agent who allegedly offered “no other justification for their detention” than having heard Suda and Hernandez speaking in their native language.
The ACLU argued in the February filing that CBP’s actions constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects American citizens against unreasonable search and seizure. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also allege that CBP violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“I told my daughter that to speak Spanish should make her proud and not ashamed of who she is,” Suda said Saturday. She added that in the year since their case received national attention, several members of the Spanish-speaking community in Havre have approached her and Hernandez with supportive words.
Spokesmen and representatives of CBP have declined to comment on the pending litigation to several media outlets, including MTN News.
“It’s especially important for them to have done what they did [and] come forward to be plaintiffs […] and bring some accountability,” said Shahid Haque, an attorney at Border Crossing Law Firm, PC and a former Rankin awardee.
“I’ve run into so many Latinos who have been racially profiled,” Haque said at the ceremony. “In most of those cases […] they don’t choose to do anything.”
The ACLU also chose to spotlight the issue of probation reform at the ceremony, as ongoing research into the Montana probation and parole system by the organization has led to troubling finds, according to SK Rossi, ACLU of Montana advocacy and policy director.
“There is this enormous number of people who are only going back into jail because they broke a rule, not because they committed a crime,” Rossi said at the event before introducing awardee Melissa Smylie.
Smylie was another recipient of the Jeanette Rankin Civil Liberties Award. She is a mother and former AmeriCorps member who has advocated for major reform of the probation system in Montana after serving time for three felony counts and several probation violations.
“Melissa had, quite frankly, one of the worst experiences we heard about in the probation and parole system,” Rossi said.
Some of the obstacles Smylie said she faced include a lack of bedding at the Elkhorn Treatment Center, which led, in her view, to more time being served unfairly. At the same time, she struggled with alcoholism.
“The barriers the probation system created made recovery nearly impossible,” Smylie wrote in a blog post on the ACLU’s website. Since being released, Smylie earned a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, and she continues to advocate for those in situations similar to hers.
For more information on the Jeanette Rankin Civil Liberties Award and past honorees, visit the ACLU of Montana’s website here.
Correction: Our original article incorrectly stated Shahid Haque was Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez’s immigration lawyer. He is an attorney at Border Crossing Law Firm, PC and a former Rankin awardee.
Reporting by Zachary Schermele for MTN News