Most of my colleagues crossed the U.S. border with barely a glance. Why was I usually detained and harassed?
By TIANNA SPEARS
On Nov. 19, 2018, I was driving from my home in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the border to El Paso, Texas, when a Customs and Border Protection agent in his booth looked at my car, looked at me, and waved me to the left, through yellow poles separating the lanes, and into one of a half-dozen parking spaces off to the side. He told me to park under a roofed area and sit on a metal bench alongside my car.
I was a freshly minted 26-year-old U.S. diplomat, stationed at the U.S. Consulate General in Mexico, just a few miles from the border. Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are effectively two halves of a single metropolitan area of over 2 million people, and the line between them is one of the busiest border crossings in the world. Residents of one side frequently drive over the border to shop, go to the doctor or dine at restaurants. All the diplomats working at the consulate visit El Paso frequently; some even send their children to school on the Texas side, and cross the border as often as twice a day for school activities.
If you’re working at the State Department, like I was, and traffic isn’t bad, your trip across the border usually just takes a few minutes. The border between Juarez and El Paso has two lanes set aside for “trusted travelers,” people who travel frequently into and out of the country and who’ve been vetted in advance by the U.S. government. This group, which includes business travelers and diplomats, carry a pass known as a SENTRI card, issued by CBP, which is supposed to allow “expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” You’re directed to special lanes and hold your card up to a camera a few feet in front of a booth manned by CBP officers. Most of the time the officers wave through travelers using SENTRI cards, so the whole process takes just a few seconds. But if the officers have questions about the identity of the travelers or any other suspicion, they can flag them off to the side for additional questioning and searches, including putting the car through an X-ray machine.
This is called “secondary inspection,” and sometimes being picked out for secondary inspection is just arbitrary, like a random check by the Transportation Security Agency at an airport. It’s rare for U.S. consular officers to be regularly pulled over; in addition to having a SENTRI card, we carry diplomatic passports. Some of my fellow diplomats have told me they had not once been pulled into secondary inspection after living in Juarez for years. One told me he was always greeted with, “Welcome home to America, sir.”
But in the time I’d lived in Juarez — less than one month — I’d already been flagged for secondary inspection four times. This would be the fifth.
On one level, there was no obvious reason they were stopping me. I had passed extensive background and security checks to get my job and to qualify for a SENTRI card. CBP’s own website says that to get a SENTRI card, “all applicants undergo a rigorous background check and in-person interview.”
There was one difference between me and my colleagues who rarely if ever got stopped: The vast majority of my colleagues were white, while I’m Black. But I was a U.S. citizen and a diplomat. I had taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Could the color of my skin really be why I was being singled out?
CBP is the largest police force in the country, and one that I was learning operates with some autonomy—a lot of rules that apply to other law enforcement agencies don’t apply in their zone, including rules on searches and seizures. They don’t have to get warrants to search you or your car.
I didn’t want to make waves. I was focused on doing my new job and doing it well. But on my father’s advice, I did decide to start taking notes on my interactions with officers at the border. After each border crossing, I would pull off the side of the road to jot down what had happened, the names of the officers, and what they’d said to me. (The accounts of my border crossings in this article, including the italicized quotations from CBP officers, are based on those notes.)
This particular stop was a Monday morning, and I was headed to El Paso to buy food for Thanksgiving dinner. I complied with the officer’s instructions and sat on the metal bench as my car was searched for about 15 minutes by officers and a police dog. CBP officials asked my reason for travel to the U.S., the address of my U.S. destination, who I planned to meet with, the duration of travel, and if the car I was driving was mine. The CBP officer told me to stay on the bench with my hands crossed. He placed my SENTRI Card and car keys on the windshield because he said—I don’t want you to steal the car.
This was the first time I decided to speak up. I asked to speak to the on-duty CBP supervisor. When he arrived, I asked directly what I’d been worried about: whether I was being racially profiled because I am an African American woman. The supervisor told me that the officers were just doing their job. Their main concern, he told me, was national security.
I told the manager that I understood. I told him that I worked at the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez as a consular officer and I, too, was trained to uphold national security. He told me again: The officers were simply doing their jobs. He requested my diplomatic passport and left to make a copy in his office. Upon returning, he told me that what I was experiencing was a SENTRI computer system error, and not related to any discrimination or racial profiling. He assured me that the issue would be resolved.
The issue was not resolved. Far from it. After that, if anything, my treatment got worse. On Nov. 24, I was pulled into secondary again as I headed to the gym to work off Thanksgiving dinner, and again in late December, as I was headed to visit family for Christmas vacation. By my tally, I was pulled into secondary inspection about two out of every three times I crossed the border.
But it wasn’t just the frequency of the delays and searches that was becoming a problem. CBP officers seemed to be escalating their harassment.
By early January, I felt like I was experiencing more questioning and more overtly hostile treatment each time I was pulled into secondary inspection. I was regularly laughed at by U.S. officials as they asked my citizenship and my job. I would present four forms of identification—my diplomatic passport, U.S. passport, ID granted by the Mexican government, and my SENTRI card—which were regularly waved away. Officers would say they didn’t believe I worked at the U.S. Consulate and refuse to even look at my documents.
One time, an officer told me, which I wrote down: Just because you say you work at the consulate does not mean that you are not smuggling drugs into the country. I asked him to explain. He responded, I don’t know, but I do know what drug dealers and smugglers look like. He stepped forward, crossed his arms, looked at me up and down, and said: You know what I mean.
Once I was harassed because I asked the officers if they could drive my car through the X-ray machine for me. I had been told this was an option, and at this point, I was feeling overly exposed to the border X-ray machine. One officer denied that they could do that, saying I would have to be pregnant for the officers to drive my car through the machine. When I stated that I was not pregnant, this same officer told me, maybe you should try getting pregnant, since you have issues complying with the rules.
By this time, I knew that what was happening to me wasn’t normal, but I was still trying to figure out how to resolve it on my own. Becoming a foreign service officer had been my dream, and I didn’t want to give up on it.
I grew up in Durham, N.C., which is a hub for higher education and technology and has an established and proud Black community. My parents ran their own businesses, and I was raised believing that I could choose my own path in the world.
When I was 19, I participated in a study abroad program in San Jose, Costa Rica. I spoke not one word of Spanish. My host mother, Rosa, practiced with me every day, over pan dulce and chisme. After weeks of vocabulary lessons and red light-green light games with my host niece and nephew, we rode by the U.S. Embassy. I want to work at an embassy one day, I told her, pointing. She smiled. My dream was to achieve Spanish fluency, obtain my master’s degree in international relations, and represent my country.
After college, I lived for more than a year in both the Dominican Republic and Spain, where I taught English and honed my Spanish. I studied Spanish in Guatemala and went backpacking across Europe and Central America. Back home in late 2016 when a friend from my study abroad program sent me a job link to the foreign service, I applied.
Becoming a foreign service consular officer wasn’t easy. There were the job application, essay questions, Spanish phone interview, oral assessment, conditional job offer, security clearance, and medical clearance. I had to move out of my apartment, move into my parents’ home, wait for the official job offer, then move to D.C. After that, there was intensive training, the ceremony known as Flag Day on which I got my country assignment, Spanish language training, and a week to pack and say goodbye. A total of 577 days passed from the time I clicked send on the job application to the day I stood inside the State Department building in Washington, D.C., in April 2018 to start my job and training. I would start as a foreign service consular adjudicator, making decisions about visa applications. The job was designed to be a stepping stone into the diplomatic corps; I agreed to serve five years overseas during which I could apply to be a career foreign service officer. I stared at the colorful flags that decorate the State Department’s lobby and felt proud of myself.
Ciudad Juarez is the largest U.S. immigrant visa processing post in the world. It’s a challenging place to work, not just because of the volume of visa applications, but also because of the violence between drug cartels that was still going on while I was there. We were supposed to keep our doors locked and windows rolled up when we drove around town and were encouraged not to be out after dark. After I ran into an applicant I had denied a visa to in the aisle of a Juarez grocery store, I decided to do my shopping in El Paso. As an African American woman, the people I rejected for visas would remember me and could easily identify me on the street.
For me, as for most consular officers in Juarez, visiting El Paso was a relief from the stress. Normally, I went there two or three times a week. It was where I took my dog to the dog park, did my grad-school homework in the Mas y Menos coffee shop, and went to the gym. I had a sense of community in El Paso, as people smiled in stores and said hello. It was a lively, multi-ethnic city, and sometimes they spoke to me in Spanish, delighted that I could respond.
But to get to El Paso I needed to cross the border.
As the months wore on, I tried everything I could think of to lessen the harassment. I alternated between the two different SENTRI lanes, in case Lane 1 would be different from Lane 2. I tried immediately telling CBP officers at primary inspection my occupation and residence, offering them my reason for crossing before I was asked. I crossed the border at different times of the day or the week. I changed into professional attire, like a blazer and dress pants. I removed sunglasses, glasses, hats, and scarves.
There were only a few consular officers of color in Juarez. They, too, had been pulled into secondary inspection a few times at the border, but CBP officers seemed to be more aggressive with me, probably because I had begun regularly to ask to speak to a manager whenever I was pulled to secondary inspection. Nothing that the officers gave me as a reason for being continuously pulled into secondary inspection made sense. By this point, I was convinced that I stood out so much that the officers knew who I was at a distance. Maybe it was my short curly afro. On a few occasions, I could see the officer ahead reach for an orange secondary inspection slip before I even pulled up to the camera to scan my SENTRI card.
The following are explanations that I jotted down after encounters with CBP officers:
You have been selected for a random computer-generated inspection.
Your SENTRI card is not valid.
We do not believe that you work at the Consulate.
A Nissan Rogue is a known car make and model used by drug smugglers at ports of entry.
Where are your license plates from? (I had North Carolina plates and they had been entered into the SENTRI system and approved as part of my application.)
Is this a rental car?
We don’t have you in the system. Is this your first time crossing the border? Ten minutes later at secondary inspection with a different officer, I was asked the opposite — Why do you so frequently enter the U.S.?
I was paying close attention by this point to how other people were treated at the border, comparing it to how I was treated.
On Saturday, February 9, 2019, at 9:38 a.m., I was headed to my gym in El Paso and waited in SENTRI Line 1 behind three other cars. All three cars presented their SENTRI card to the camera, waiting no more than five seconds before the CBP officer, who was standing outside the booth, waved them through without even checking the computer. I was next. I advanced to show my SENTRI card to the camera.
The officer and I made eye contact. He then went inside his booth and grabbed an orange secondary inspection form without checking his computer and began writing with his pen. Seconds later, the officer asked why I was in Mexico and handed me the orange secondary inspection form. When I asked him why I was being sent to secondary, the officer told me that it was a computer-generated random inspection.
But I’d been watching him the whole time. The officer wasn’t in his booth as I approached, so he couldn’t see his computer, which means that he didn’t see my SENTRI card, and couldn’t have known whether his computer had tagged me randomly for secondary inspection. It seemed that as soon as he made eye contact with me, the officer decided to send me to secondary.
Since I had moved to Juarez in late October 2018, even when I wasn’t pulled into secondary inspection, officers in primary inspection still made sarcastic comments, cruel jokes, and belittling jabs implying I was not a U.S. diplomat, not a U.S. citizen and had stolen my own car.
It wasn’t just that these kinds of comments made me angry—they also made me scared. At least twice, a CBP officer put his hand on his gun when interacting and questioning me in a way that felt to me like a threat.
In secondary inspection, you were forbidden from using your cellphone, so I had no way of telling people that I was running late, or why. I developed a system with my colleagues. I would send a text message when I left my house, and again as I approached the border. The rule was, if you didn’t hear from me 15 minutes after that, call the consulate immediately. Send someone to come get me.
The harassment I received at the border began to affect me emotionally and physically. I developed a stutter. I could not look people in the eye. I was extremely on edge all the time. In my bathroom sink, my hair fell out in chunks. I gave up and cut all my hair off. My voice shook when I spoke. The simple thought of driving would make my hands perspire and my heart race.
I felt defeated. I was just 26 years old. My hands shook uncontrollably when I thought about driving. I paced back and forth in my living room with my car keys in my hand, telling myself I could do this; I could cross the border. I slept on and off during the night. I set my security alarm, locked my doors, and locked my bedroom door at 7 p.m. every night after work. I missed work due to illness; I took mental health days.
How did I arrive to a career as a U.S. diplomat, only to be bullied and harassed by U.S. officials at the port of entry of a country I was born in and working for?
For the first few months, I had been focusing on my job, the transition of moving, living abroad, and a new life. I’d worked hard to get this post, and really wanted to succeed. I spoke to Juarez regional and assistant security officers in early January on the phone about what was happening to me but never heard back from them.
On Feb. 13, 2019, I decided to put what was happening to me into writing. I started writing a letter to upper management in the consulate describing the harassment. A colleague saw me typing and asked me what I was working on. After reading my letter, he was furious to learn what had been happening to me. He said I needed to go upstairs and talk to someone immediately.
I pushed “send” on my email, which was addressed to the consul general, the deputy consul general, and other consulate officials. The next day I would resend the email to more officials and supervisors in Juarez and Washington, including human resources officers.
Later that day, I met with security officers who said they would contact CBP supervisors. However, I can distinctly remember feeling that they didn’t understand. I remember trying to convince them that what I was experiencing was real. At one point that day, a State Department official told me that what I was experiencing wasn’t racism, because personally, he had no issues crossing the border as a white man. I couldn’t figure out what he meant by that. Would I need to explain to him that you can’t experience racism as a white man crossing a border staffed largely by white CBP officers? Would I need to explain the concept of racism?
At this point, most of my friends and some of my peers were aware of the situation, as was the consulate’s upper management. Some colleagues offered solidarity. Others offered stories of their acknowledgment of their white privilege, which did not feel too helpful because this wasn’t about them. Others, also unhelpfully, simply told me to stop crossing the border. A Human Resources officer in D.C. explained that I should just cross at another port of entry, or not cross the border at all.
Four of my upper-level white supervisors in Juarez gave me their personal phone numbers and offered to drive with me in my car to cross the border. While this may have been a sincere gesture on their part, that’s not something I was comfortable doing. It would have felt demeaning to need a white escort. I was as American as they were. We had the same documents. We had the same diplomatic passport. What I wanted was for the system to recognize that, and to treat me the same as my white colleagues.
A few days after meeting with management, I was harassed again on Feb. 16. And then on Feb. 17, at the primary inspection booth, I was asked to roll down all the windows in my car, open my trunk, and asked where my license plates were from. The officer asked if the vehicle was my car. As a consular officer, I knew what kind of questions to ask to make sure a person was who they said they were. But with me, the questioning was accusatory, always premised on the idea that I was lying somehow. I said yes. I asked why would the car not be mine, given that my car is also registered in the SENTRI system; I reminded him that I provided this information when I registered for Global Entry and SENTRI. My information was approved by Customs and Border Protection in June 2018. Again, I was asked if the car was mine. Rather confused, I replied yes and he asked me if I was responsible for everything in the car. Again, I said yes.
I was still sent to secondary inspection.
The officer I spoke to at the primary booth closed his booth, walked over, and instructed me to grab my valuables. I was told to sit on the metal bench with my back facing him. Over my shoulder, I could see this officer and another officer rigorously inspecting my car, the engine, passenger area, and trunk. The officer I spoke to unnecessarily slammed my car door and compartments inside my car, smearing his fingers on my windows to the point that I got my car washed the next day. He hesitated when inspecting the front passenger seat, pausing, and looking up to make eye contact with me. He yelled at me to turn around. Something did not feel right in my gut; I worried that the officer had intentions of dropping something in my car. When the search in secondary inspection ended and I continued into the U.S., I thoroughly searched my car, especially the front passenger seat, paranoid that the officer had put something in my car.
After just four months in Juarez, I had reached a breaking point. I explained the harassment to a State Department medical officer, who told me that I had begun to develop symptoms of PTSD. I had been in touch with the State Department’s Human Resources team, both in Juarez and in Washington, and was given the option of a “compassionate curtailment from post”—that is, allowing me to leave my assignment in Juarez 20 months early.
At the end of February, I was transferred to Mexico City on a temporary assignment, and reassigned there permanently a few weeks later.
While in Mexico City, I inquired about my case via email with Juarez management; the only response was from the consulate’s Homeland Security attaché, who had contacted CBP. He told me that CBP’s computer system had been making a mistake, confusing me with someone else with a similar name. Another Tianna Spears? While it didn’t make sense, he told me that CBP promised him the error would be corrected by March 1.
On March 30, I returned to Juarez to pack up my belongings and say goodbye to colleagues and upper management. As I crossed into El Paso to pick up my dog and buy supplies for my new apartment, I was flagged into secondary one last time.
This time, though, the CBP officer in secondary inspection was kind. And our interaction was very different. When I told him that this was the first time going through that checkpoint that I hadn’t been harassed, he told me that what I was experiencing wasn’t my imagination, and encouraged me to keep moving forward. Look, he said: We both know you’re being pulled over because you’re Black. But you worked hard to be here. You can’t let anybody take that from you.
In Mexico City, I found a therapist and a yoga studio. I read motivational books and tried to make the best out of the situation. My managers in the nonimmigrant visa section of the embassy where I worked were kind, talking through cases over morning oatmeal, laughing at Friday happy hour socials, always having an open-door policy.
But the damage had been done. I was later diagnosed by the embassy’s health unit and my therapist not only with PTSD but with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. My anxiety wasn’t helped when I checked my LinkedIn account and discovered that officers from CBP in El Paso had started viewing my profile. I deleted my profile picture and set my profile to private. After the LinkedIn viewing continued and I was contacted by a journalist who somehow heard about my harassment at the border with CBP, I contacted Juarez upper management with my concerns. State Department officials in Juarez never responded.
I immediately met with officials with Human Resources and Public Affairs in Mexico City and told them about what was happening and how I was still being harassed by CBP. Both officials told me that I would need to request permission to speak to the journalist about my experiences at the border with CBP. I was told my responses would be edited by State Department officials if necessary. When I asked if this would have any repercussions on my career, not one person could give me an answer. This had a chilling effect on me. It felt like an effort to silence me.
I tried to continue focusing on my job in Mexico City. I continued to send emails to upper management consulate officials in Juarez, asking for updates. In April 2019, the Homeland Security attaché, still the only one to respond, told me that my case was referred to CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and that I should “expect to receive an email from that office soon.” The attaché told me that I should report any future harassment at the border to that office, a toll-free phone number, or the CBP Office of Inspector General Hotline.
But it wasn’t future harassment that was my concern. Now that I was in Mexico City I wouldn’t be crossing the border anymore. What I wanted was the State Department and CBP to address the harassment I’d already received, to hold those responsible accountable.
Friends and family visited me in Mexico City, but by September 2019 I was having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. The State Department didn’t give me the option of working in the United States until my health improved. HR officials told me I would owe the State Department thousands of dollars to reimburse them for my relocation if I left since I‘d served less than one year after being moved from Juarez to Mexico City. I didn’t have thousands of dollars, nor did HR know the exact amount I would owe. I felt that this situation was out of my control, that if I’d never experienced the harassment by CBP I wouldn’t be in this situation. It wasn’t my fault. I kept trying to make it work.
By October 2019 I was beginning to have suicidal thoughts and feared I would kill myself if I stayed in Mexico. A few weeks later, the medical unit found me unfit to serve abroad due to my deteriorating health—this meant the State Department wouldn’t require me to pay back my relocation expenses, but it would bring my foreign service career to an end. I said goodbye to my friends, gifted them my plants, bought a plane ticket home, and returned to my parents’ arms in America. I was 25 years old when the job started and 27 years old when I returned home.
I was now unemployed, without medical insurance, and spent my time in expensive biweekly counseling sessions to continue to work on my PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
On my return flight to the United States, I landed at the airport in Houston for a layover. As I passed through passport control, U.S. Customs and Border Protection pulled me aside and searched me. During all my travels as a private citizen, that had never happened. Clearly, I was still being singled out by CBP, even at the airport. And despite what I’d been promised, CBP appeared to have done little to fix their records. I was convinced that CBP’s records had absolutely nothing to do with the harassment I endured. It was only because of the color of my skin.
To date, 18 months after my letter to upper management, I never got a response to my complaint from the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility or from the State Department’s upper management in Ciudad Juarez, or the consulate’s security officers. I was never notified of an investigation into my complaint or informed of an outcome.
In the course of editing and fact-checking this article, POLITICO contacted the State Department to request comment. A department spokeswoman provided a statement that read in part: “All department employees should be treated fairly, whether at the Department, an embassy or consulate overseas, or in interactions with agencies like CBP while traveling to and from the United States.” She added that “with respect to the specific case of the former State Department Consular Fellow, we understand that an investigation of the matter was conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility and we refer you to CBP for the details.”
POLITICO also contacted Customs and Border Protection to request comment. In a lengthy statement, CBP spokesman Matthew Dyman disputed Spears‘ account of her border crossings, saying that she was referred to secondary inspection during 12 of 43 crossings, and that “all referrals were system generated.“ The language of the statement did not make clear whether CBP keeps records of referrals to secondary inspection made for other reasons, such as an officer’s discretion.
Dyman said CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility referred Spears’ complaint to CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which is the department that staffs border posts. The spokesman said that an integrity officer in the El Paso Field Office reviewed video of Spears’ crossings and interviewed officers, and the review was completed on April 19, 2019. It was not clear from the statement whether the footage and other evidence was reviewed by CBP officials other than officials located in the El Paso field office.
“There is no evidence to substantiate her allegations of racial discrimination, harassment, unfair detainment, false accusations against her or threats by port personnel,” Dyman said in his statement. “CBP completed a full investigation and found no evidence of misconduct. To the contrary, evidence supports that officers acted appropriately, professionally, within policy, and in accordance with their legal authorities.”
“CBP takes all allegations of employee misconduct very seriously and has instituted policies pertaining to abuses of authority. Complaints of unprofessional conduct are recorded, investigated and appropriate action is taken against CBP officers who are found to have violated policy,” Dyman said. “CBP found no evidence of misconduct in this case, as such, there is no information regarding any disciplinary action.”
In a follow up email exchange with a CBP spokesman, POLITICO asked whether the video footage reviewed by CBP officials included audio as well as video; the spokesman responded that the footage does not include audio of Spears’ encounters with CBP officers. POLITICO also asked whether CBP records include referrals to secondary inspection made at an officer’s discretion; the spokesman did not directly answer the question, responding that, “All the referrals for Ms. Spears were auto-generated.“
Spears has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for CBP documents including the video footage CBP cited in their response; as of publication, she had not received any documents or video footage in response to that request.
Since I returned from Mexico City, I’ve been living back home in Durham, finishing a master’s degree in Global Studies and International Relations, and looking for a job.
I’ve done a lot of thinking since I was separated from the State Department about whether it was the harassment by CBP or the lack of response from the State Department that was the most damaging. I’m positive I’m not the first diplomat of color to experience the extra burden of difficulty race can make when navigating interactions with Customs and Border Protection at the Juarez border, or any U.S. border. However, regardless of citizenship, job position, or any other factor, not one person should be treated like I was.
But after months in therapy, thinking, and weighing what I went through, I feel that officers repeatedly asking me if I’ve stolen my own car, refusing to look at my documents, and treating me in a discriminatory and aggressive manner to the point where I developed mental health conditions and my hair fell out, are not people just doing their job for the sake of U.S. national security. It’s racism, harassment and bullying, and it causes damage. It’s damage that had a life-shattering impact on my health, life, and career.
In the end, I believe that my employer,the State Department, could and should have done more to support me. It’s telling that I never heard back from State Department management in Juarez. I wonder how many other Black women have fled overseas posts because they were inadequately supported by the State Department in situations like mine.
It’s not unheard of for diplomats of color to face racial discrimination while representing the United States. But what makes my situation different is that the racial harassment I suffered wasn’t from a foreign government or residents of a foreign country — it was from sworn law enforcement officers of my home country, the country that is supposed to recognize and protect my rights.
Despite everything I’d achieved, despite my status as a U.S. diplomat, despite the fact that I worked for the U.S. government, CBP officers still viewed me and treated me, based first and foremost on the color of my skin. They assumed they could get away with it.
And they did, perhaps, until I decided to tell my story.