'I Was Asked If I Stole My Car': Black Diplomats Describe Harassment At U.S. Borders
In April 2018, Tianna Spears joined the State Department, looking forward to the promise of a fulfilling career. Then 26, she had spent three years learning Spanish in the Dominican Republic and Spain to help land a position in the Foreign Service.
"I was super-excited to start," she says. "I had dreams of being a diplomat and living in several places in Latin America."
Spears' first posting, in October that same year, was at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. Everything started off well, she says, and she quickly settled into her new life and job. Spears would often cross back into the U.S. to shop or meet friends for coffee.
But she quickly noticed a trend: When she made those border crossings, she was regularly pulled over by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers for secondary inspection.
Spears is Black. She is one of a growing number of current and former minority foreign service officers to speak out recently about the special challenges they face as diplomats.
This comes as the State Department is under pressure to diversify its ranks. The Foreign Service is overwhelmingly white. Just 6% of foreign service officers are African-American, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
Spears says while crossing the border, she showed the CBP agents her diplomatic passport and other official forms of identification — and was startled at the line of questioning she then underwent.
"I was asked if I stole my car," she says. "One time, I was even accused of having counterfeit documents, as in my diplomatic passport ... I was regularly questioned on if I truly worked at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez."
In the six months that she worked in the consulate, Spears says she was pulled aside more than 20 times. Each time, she says, the harassment escalated.
"One time, I was told not to look at the officer in the eyes when I spoke to him," she says. "I was told I needed to look down at the ground."
Spears says she was left feeling that they "wanted to make me feel small."
CBP denies Spears' allegations, saying its own video footage contradicts some of her claims — including an incident in which Spears has alleged that an officer stood in front of her with his hand on his gun, his finger on the trigger.
In a statement, the agency calls that allegation "completely unsubstantiated." It tells NPR that Spears was pulled over a dozen times because inconsistencies with her address triggered an automatic second check. CBP says it found no evidence of officers' misconduct in Spears' case, and so there was no disciplinary action.
Spears still maintains that she was harassed and intimidated by CBP officers because she is Black. She says several times she complained to CBP supervisors at the border. One supervisor handed her a pamphlet with a hotline number to call, she says, and told her that the officers would not be disciplined.
Spears also took her concerns to her superiors at the U.S. Consulate.
There, she says, "I was just met with pure denial and gaslighting about how this wasn't racism, this wasn't discrimination. Essentially, you know, it was downplayed and brushed under the rug."
Spears was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, but the experience stayed with her. She was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She left the State Department last October, less than two years after she joined.
In May, shortly after the death of George Floyd, Spears wrote about her experiences on her blog. Charles Ray, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, and as the first U.S. consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, says he was stunned when he read Spears' account.
"I was beside myself for a couple of hours, thinking I cannot believe crap like that is still happening," he says.
Ray, who is also Black, says he too experienced harassment at U.S. borders during his 30-year career, which ended in 2012. He says he learned to just put up with it because no one particularly cared — back then or now.
"No one's going to stick their head above their desk and make an issue of it if they value their job, if they feel that the senior leadership doesn't care," he says. "And frankly, my personal opinion is that the senior leadership really does not care."
A State Department spokesperson who did not want to be named tells NPR that the department is taking Spears' allegations seriously, and is in talks with the CBP to "improve the experience" of diplomats at U.S. borders.
Alonzo Fulgham, a former senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, says progress is slow. He mentors young Black foreign service officers, many of whom do not want to create waves and jeopardize their future by complaining about harassment at borders.
But Fulgham says he hopes Spears' account will help force change with the way minority U.S. diplomats are treated at U.S. border crossings.
"I do think there's hope with these young people because they're much more informed ... they blog and they talk to each other," he says. "And that's I think that's going to be helpful to getting more people to speak up."
Spears — who is now finishing work on a master's degree in international relations and hopes to work "to promote change in Black and brown communities by focusing on economic issues and promoting activism" — says writing about her experiences was cathartic.
"You have to understand how hard I worked to get there," she says. "And I did not want this to be taken from me. And that's what eventually happened in the end."