Tianna Spears joined the United States Foreign Service because she wanted to represent America.
In October of 2018, she started as a consular officer with the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Every day, she interviewed around 25 immigrants applying for U.S. visas for work, study, and travel.
“It wasn’t safe,” Spears, now a Durham resident, tells the INDY of life in the Mexican city, which has been riddled with government corruption, drug-fueled gang violence, and poverty since the early 1990s. “I lived in a gated community [with] barbed wire and a security guard.”
But it wasn’t Juárez’s crime and corruption that made Spears’ work life difficult. Instead, it was officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who turned her dream job into a nightmare.
During her six-month tenure in Juárez, Spears says she experienced repeated racial profiling by CBP officers. Many of her trips back to the U.S. turned into drawn-out ordeals as CBP officers regularly ordered Spears, who carried four different types of identification with her, to pull into a secondary line of cars where they questioned her embassy credentials. Time and again, she says, she was subjected to body and vehicle searches for drugs, despite carrying a Global Entry card that ostensibly grants expedited clearance to pre-approved travelers.
Later, on her blog, What’s Up With Tianna, Spears chronicled some of her experiences:
I drove my vehicle from my house in Mexico across the Ysleta-Zaragoza International Bridge into El Paso, Texas on Saturday, January 19, 2019. A CBP officer flagged me into secondary inspection, for what I estimate was more than 15 times since I arrived in Mexico—at least once a week. The official inquired if I was a U.S. citizen, motive of travel in the United States, reason of visit in Mexico, and if the car I was driving was stolen. I sat on a cold bench and endured further questioning. I showed my Diplomatic Passport, stating I worked at the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juárez, and lived there.
“Sure you do,” he laughed.
During the six months Spears worked in Juárez, Spears says she was harassed at least 25 times by CBP officers.
“Clearly, they knew who I was,” she tells the INDY.
Spears says the repeated harassment she experienced at the border and the State Department’s failure to address it after she filed complaints wore heavily on her.
“I tried to speak up, but no one helped me,” she says. “No one made the harassment stop.”
Spears sought the help of a therapist, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder.
“I’m a lot better,” she says. “But I’m still very much impacted by what happened to me.”
Spears says she didn’t feel safe sharing her experiences publicly until she returned to Durham and the last of her belongings were moved out of Mexico. Five days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Spears says she “drank a lot of coffee” and wrote a lengthy blog post, “What Do I Want from White People? (An Illustration on Being Black in America),” documenting the outrages by a country that sanctions police violence against Black people and detailing her experiences as a Black woman working as a foreign service officer.
The post, excerpted in this story, went viral.
A new official appeared and searched my car, tossing around the contents in my backseat and glove compartment. He took his left hand and rubbed it up and down my car windows.
“I’m going to meet my friend in El Paso,” I stated.
“When you talk to a man, you look at the ground. Do you understand me?” He glared at me, face full of disgust. The officers laughed. My shoulders tense.
“May I speak to your manager please?” I asked.
The on-duty manager approached, crossing his arms, and asked, “What do you want?” I told him about my negative interaction with the previous officers. The manager laughed and asked the motive of travel into the U.S. I told him I was going to meet a friend for coffee and was asked why I needed to come to the U.S. to partake in that activity.
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” I reiterated.
Spears is a California native who moved to Durham with her parents when she was nine years old. She recalls hearing the call to prayer from the Jamaat Ibad Ar Rahman mosque in the mornings and the Hillside High School band playing during football games.
After graduating on a scholarship from Ravenscroft High School in Raleigh, Spears enrolled at North Carolina State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2014, then a master’s degree in International Relations from Northeastern University. As an undergraduate, Spears studied in Costa Rica and became interested in working for the State Department. In 2018, the department selected her to participate in its Consular Fellows Program, where Americans interested in a career in foreign service can work adjudicating visas in a consulate abroad.
“I remember seeing the embassy and thinking, ‘I could work there,’” she says. “I wanted to travel, meet new friends, and represent the United States abroad. I knew there weren’t too many people of color, especially Black women. I knew America needed more representation across the board. I thought I was the perfect candidate.”
When I reiterated that his account of the frequency of secondary inspection was incorrect, the manager scoffed, his team standing behind him almost mocking me.
“Just because you say you work at the Consulate, does not mean that you are not smuggling drugs into the country,” he said. Extremely frustrated and irritated, I asked how in the world I would be able to get top secret security clearance to work for the United States Government.
The manager then told me, “I do not know, but I do know what drug dealers and smugglers look like.” When I asked him to explain, the manager stepped forward, attempting to intimidate me, crossed his arms, looked at me up and down, and said, “You know what I mean.” I was furious at his insinuation that I was a drug smuggler and his racially charged implication based off of my appearance. I demanded an apology from the manager for the disgusting and unjust defamation of my name and my character.
Spears says she thinks the Trump administration’s callousness toward people of color played a role in border officers’ behavior toward her.
“The blunt racism, the sexism, demagoguery, and xenophobia—all of that coming from the U.S. president empowers and emboldens the Department of Homeland Security border officers to act in hostile and retaliatory ways,” she says.
Spears also blames the State Department for creating a work environment that did not value her safety.
The CBP manager took another step forward to stand on top of the platform that the bench sits on, positioning him to be a couple inches taller than me. He placed his hand on his gun in the holster, finger around the trigger, and told me to get back in my car. His body language and his hand looked like he was just about to shoot.
I did not move.
Shaking. I remember wondering if he would just shoot me. Why not? I had already said too much.
I requested his supervisor. The CBP Supervisor came out to secondary inspection, greeting me by saying, “I remember you.”
The State Department employs some 76,000 people worldwide, according to a 2019 agency report, a third of whom are career foreign services officials and civil service employees. Black employees make up just over 15 percent of foreign service and civil service employees, according to the department’s 2019 five-year workforce plan—just above the 13.4 percent of the African American percentage of the national population.
Meanwhile, fewer women and people of color are represented in senior-level career jobs at the State Department than white men. While women account for over 42 percent of foreign and civil service leadership posts, Asian Americans comprise 4.5 percent, Hispanics 6 percent, and Black people 10.7 percent.
The border officers from Spears’ experiences were never disciplined.
Last week, a State Department spokesperson told the INDY on background that CBP officials became aware of Spears’ allegations of repeated harassment and that an investigation was launched four days after Spears filed her complaint.
On March 8 of 2019, following reviews by the Department of Homeland Security, the case was referred to the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility in El Paso.
The spokesperson wrote that, in the CBP’s review of a 30-second video of the incident involving the officer with the gun, the “footage is clear that the officer never moved his hands towards his weapon nor postured himself in a manner that could be construed as threatening or intimidating,” and that Spears’ “public claim that a CBP officer effectively threatened her by placing his finger around the trigger of a firearm is completely unsubstantiated, and, in fact, contradicted by video evidence.”
The spokesperson later added that the full investigation “found no evidence of misconduct.”
Less than a month after Spears filed her complaint, she was transferred over 1,000 miles away, to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico City, where she interviewed about 100 visa applicants each day.
Spears quit working for the State Department in October of 2019.
“Or, more like, [was] forced out,” Spears explains. “The environment was not conducive to my mental health issues, and it was hard to fend for myself.”
This June, following her blog post going viral, Spears created a GoFundMe she called “A Love Letter To Durham,” where she wrote of her love for the city that raised and nurtured her, of a grandfather that worked at NC Mutual, and a grandmother who was a public school teacher.
“I wanted to give back to Black and Brown organizations,” Spears says.
The campaign raised more than $33,000. Spears distributed the money to a handful of community organizations including Black Girls CODE, Blackspace, the Boys & Girls Clubs, Durham Literacy Center, El Centro Hispano, Urban Ministries of Durham, Walltown Children’s Theatre, and N.C. Central’s Office of International Affairs, for study abroad.
Spears says she’s healing while writing and seeking “a more creative life;” she’s focusing on creating a storytelling platform for voices that aren’t always heard, or heeded.
“I want to be in a space where I’m growing, healing, and open to whatever opportunity presents itself,” she says.
On her blog, she writes:
You will rise again to face another day. Build a community. Love your mother, love your father. Go to church and sing a song, a local community center, and support a friend and family member’s small business. Gather for homecoming at the local Historically Black College & University that your dad’s entire family attended. Build a scholarship fund for students in your family’s honor. Hug your elders and ask them how they’re doing. Listen. Protest. Vote. Celebrate your Blackness. Continue to show up as your authentic self in all spaces. Dance, share stories, pray.
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