It showed up on my Apple news feed innocently enough and I almost skipped the article. I almost skipped it because it was from The Kansas City Star, a newspaper I wasn’t familiar with and I was afraid it was just clickbait. But the headline, As a Black US diplomat in Mexico, I was constantly asked if I was really American, kept nagging me so I relented and opened the article. I am glad I did because it gives me the opportunity to share something with you that I lived for years and unless someone lives it, it is easily dismissed as nothing more than an exaggeration.
For those that are not aware, I am a citizen of México and I live in the United States under an immigration status known as a “Permanent Resident”. Other than the inability to cast a vote, rightly so, and that I can be deported for most criminal transgressions, my status gives me the same rights and obligations of a U.S. citizen.
I could leave and come back whenever I wanted to. But having the ability to leave and return is not the same as feeling welcome in the country.
When I lived in El Paso I lived in fear.
México was just around the corner and when I yearned for some Mexican ambience, I was only an hour or two from going across the border.
But I feared crossing the border.
I was legally living in the country and doing everything expected of me. Yet, I lived in fear.
Trying to explain the fear to my friends was often dismissed as paranoia, an exaggeration or simply followed by an admonition to become an American citizen.
But unless you live in America as an immigrant it is difficult to understand what it is like to cross the U.S.-México border.
Imagine my utter shock when I read that a Black U.S. citizen AND U.S. diplomat expressed what it was like to cross the border at El Paso, Texas.
Here is a U.S. citizen – no less a diplomat representing the United States government – expressing that crossing the border into El Paso from Cd. Juárez “was such a nerve-wracking process” for her that her friends would wait for her “all clear” letting them know that she made it across the border safely.
Take a moment and reread that sentence because it is very poignant.
The woman who wrote the article, As a Black US diplomat in Mexico, I was constantly asked if I was really American, that was published in The Kansas City Star on September 24 is Tianna Spears. Spears was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Cd. Juárez. She was a U.S. diplomat.
As I reread and reread the sentence about her need to alert friends that she made it across safely, I forced myself to verify the article’s authenticity because I could not believe that a U.S. citizen, working for the U.S. Department of State, was expressing what I had a difficult time expressing about crossing into El Paso from Cd. Juárez.
Politico Magazine published her essay on August 30, 2020. [Tianna Spears, “I Was a U.S. Diplomat. Customs and Border Protection Only Cared That I Was Black,” Politico, August 30, 2020.]
In her Politico article, Spears wrote about her experiences crossing the border as a Black U.S. diplomat. She bases her observations on notes she took during her encounters with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in El Paso. Many of them.
Here is one encounter that she shared from her notes:
“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.‘” [emphasis in original]
I often crossed the border as a single Mexican man which fit the profile of the drug dealers that CBP was trying to interdict. That was all they needed to profile me and make my life miserable. As I read her experience it suddenly dawned on me that it didn’t matter if I had become a U.S. citizen or not because I would still fit the profile and thus it would not have made any difference.
I am a Mexican man, and thus, to CBP I was probably a drug dealer.
What is important for readers to understand is that profiling is just an excuse. It is the attitude that most CBP officers have in El Paso – that every Mexican is a drug dealer – that is dangerous. On second thought, apparently, even single Black females as well.
Tianna Spears’ border harassment was so bad that she developed a system where she would send a text message when she left to cross the border and if her friends didn’t hear from her in 15 minutes, they were supposed to “call the consulate immediately” and “send some” to get her.
Think about that for a moment. Cd. Juárez is a hotbed of drug violence and Spears’ fear isn’t about been kidnapped by drug dealers but by U.S. border patrol agents.
Spears goes on to describe how her heart would race and her hands perspire because she needed to cross the border.
That was me.
Even after she complained, Tianna Spears described that after explaining her experiences to the security people at the State Department they just “didn’t understand.”
Tianna Spears filed a complaint. She followed up on the complaint. She documented her experiences. In time she came to realize that no one at Customs and Border Protection cares. They have the mindset that they are omnipotent and that rights, much less, common decency is thrown out the window.
That mindset is manifested each time anyone interacts with them.
If a U.S. citizen who is also a diplomat is unable to feel safe crossing the border at El Paso, imagine how an immigrant who can lose everything at the whim of one person feels?
It took me a while, but I realized a few months after I moved to Orlando that I hadn’t seen a Border Patrol van whizzing by.
Guess what else I realized? I didn’t feel the pang of fear I usually felt whenever I saw the green Border Patrol vehicle driving by me.
I was and am legally in the United States. I am doing nothing wrong. But none of that takes away the angst I feel when I see a Border Patrol agent near me.
It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
That is what it is to be a Mexican immigrant in America.