Diplomats demand Pompeo act on accusations of border mistreatment of minority officers

Diplomats demand Pompeo act on accusations of border mistreatment of minority officers

Originally Published in CNN

Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood - July 15, 2020

The US Department of State logo is displayed inside the media briefing room 01 November 2007 at the US Department of State in Washington, DC.

(CNN) The American Academy of Diplomacy urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday to address "the deeply troubling pattern in the mistreatment of Black, Hispanic and other minority officers crossing U.S. border/entry points."

In their letter, the veteran diplomats note, "By their own testimony, many State Department officers have endured regular and persistent discrimination and harassment by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers." Diplomats of color described to CNN repeated instances where they were targeted for extra scrutiny and harassment by border patrol officials.
"While in the past, some incidents came to the attention of Department leadership, the continued reports, including from our most senior members, suggest that such mistreatment lives on and too often goes unaddressed. We hope you concur that any perception of tacit acceptance of such practices or indifference to the reports by Department officials or other Federal officials is unacceptable and warrants action," the AAD letter said.
The letter suggests that Pompeo order a department-wide review of the instances of harassment, consider measures to intervene, and look into the issue with Department of Homeland Security leadership "to ensure such practices cease."
The call to action comes amid a nationwide movement urging the US and its institutions to acknowledge and address issues of police brutality and systemic racism -- and at a time when many in the State Department have felt let down by Pompeo's response to the national reckoning that has spilled beyond US borders to resonate globally.
In a widely read blog entry posted at the end of May, Tianna Spears detailed the harassment she said she experienced at the hands of US Customs and Border Protection as a Black woman traveling back and forth across the border while posted at the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez.
Spears said that since posting that blog entry, about 10 current and former foreign service officers have reached out about facing alleged discriminatory treatment by CBP personnel.
A State Department spokesman told CNN, "We believe 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."
"We are discussing with the senior leadership of CBP practical steps to improve the experience of our personnel at the border and cooperation between the officers of the two agencies," the spokesperson said.
For retired Amb. Charles Ray, who is Black and served 30 years in the foreign service and 20 in the US Army, it's a long overdue conversation.

'My gut feeling was that people wouldn't want to hear it'

Ray recounted to CNN and in an article for the Washington International Diplomatic Academy several instances in which he was subjected to extra scrutiny by CBP officials when returning from travel.
"During my time, it was a fairly common occurrence, to be treated a little less than politely when you entered the US if you happen to be a person of color," said Ray, who retired in 2012. "And it didn't really matter what your passport was or what your age was."
"I have been treated with more politeness and more courtesy by foreigners, quite often, than by my own government, in terms of entering the country," he added.
Ray said he was pulled aside at the Miami airport in 2008, when he was serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/missing personnel affairs, despite being over 60 years old, carrying a diplomatic passport, and "traveling in company with a uniformed military aide." That aide, who was White, "breezed through," Ray told CNN.
In another example, Ray said that he and two of his colleagues in a State Department senior leadership training course -- both of whom he said were people of color -- "routinely were pulled aside for extra searching" when they were on class trips.
"It was such a common occurrence that quite often we just learned to laugh it off," Ray told CNN.
Ray said he had blocked these incidents from his mind, but when he read Spears' account of her experience, "it all sort of came back and I realized that -- it happens, it happened, I didn't realize it was still happening."
The veteran diplomat said he didn't report the incidents "because my gut feeling was that people wouldn't want to hear it because it was a troubling thing and it would require confrontation."

'A common issue'

In her late May blog post, Spears detailed one traumatic experience in January 2019 when she said she was stopped on her way to El Paso Texas. During that stop, Spears said a CBP manager stepped toward her, "placed his hand on his gun in the holster, finger around the trigger, and told (her) to get back in (her) car."
"Upon exiting secondary inspection into the United States, I pulled over to the side of the road to collect myself. I called the consulate to tell them what had happened to me. I spoke to both the assistant and regional security officers. They promised to follow up. I called my father, who unsuccessfully attempted to deescalate the situation and calm me down. I sat on the side of the road crying in my car until 5PM, took a deep breath, and did a U-turn, destined for Mexico," she wrote.
Spears said between that incident "and mid-to-late February 2019, I crossed the border into the US an estimated 12 times. I would be pulled over into secondary inspection an estimated eight times."
"My colleagues would sit by their phones as I texted that I was approaching the border. My colleagues would wait. The rule was, if you didn't hear from me in 15 minutes, call the Consulate immediately. Send someone to come get me," she wrote.
Spears said she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder after her experience. She left the job after just two years.
"Nothing was done. No one held accountable. But it is a common issue," she told CNN of her treatment by border patrol officials.
In a statement to CNN, a CBP spokesperson said a review into Spears' allegations was completed in April 2019. The spokesperson said that video evidence disputed her claim that an officer placed his hand on his gun or "postured himself in a manner that could be construed as threatening or intimidating," and that there was "no evidence to substantiate her allegations of racial discrimination, harassment, unfair detainment, false accusations against her or threats by port personnel."
"CBP completed a full investigation and found no evidence of misconduct," they said. "To the contrary, evidence supports that officers acted appropriately, professionally, within policy, and in accordance with their legal authorities."
On the number of times that Spears' was pulled into secondary inspection, the CBP response referenced a broader timeframe -- October 2018 to February 2019 -- than that recounted by Spears -- January 19, 2019 to February 2019.
The spokesperson said records show that Spears "was referred to secondary inspection twelve times out of forty-three crossings from October 2018 through February 21, 2019," but claimed that "evidence indicates all referrals were system generated."
"CBP generates automatic referrals based on several factors, including address inconsistencies as part of the standard primary inspection process," the spokesperson said. "In Ms. Spears' case, inconsistencies due to her Global Entry membership likely contributed to her system generated referrals."
Spears told CNN that she couldn't comment on the video referenced in the CBP statement because the organization did not provide it to her.
"However, I am not surprised that CBP is denying that its border patrol officers engaged in racially discriminatory harassment; my and numerous other Black and brown State Department employees' accounts paint a terrifying picture of how CBP has allowed its officers to get away with discriminatory harassment for years," she said.

Concern about speaking out

A State Department spokesperson told CNN in a statement that they "are aware of the blog by a former State Department Consular Fellow assigned to the US Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico" and that they "take allegations such as these very seriously."
Spears, however, told CNN that she felt her experience had been "brushed under the rug" by the State Department. After she was transferred from her posting in Ciudad Juarez to Mexico City, she said she "never heard back from State Department management" and "since then, even after leaving, I have never been contacted by anyone to discuss what happened."
Spears also noted that "most people won't at all talk about it until they have left the State Department."
"It is not a safe environment. You worry about career advancement. If you shake the table too much you may not receive the promotion, or that opportunity in the future," she said.
Pompeo's 'deafening' silence angers diplomats as protests over racial injustice spread globally

Since her late May blog entry, Spears says about 25 current and former foreign service officers have reached out about experiencing racism at State.
Earlier this year, Pompeo remained silent as protests against racial injustice engulfed America and spread globally, to the anger of State Department personnel. The top US diplomat eventually issued a statement to State Department staff after the funeral for George Floyd -- the Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis -- saying he shared America's outrage over his murder.
"America remains the greatest nation in the history of civilization and the country most capable of achieving equality under the law for every one of its citizens. The willingness to recognize where we have fallen short sets liberal democracy in America apart," Pompeo wrote.
A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that Pompeo "is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive Department of State workforce."
Asked about the allegations raised in the AAD letter, a CBP spokesperson said the organization "stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe." The spokesperson also noted that CBP "strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion."

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