David J. Phillip / AP file photo

Retired Diplomats Urge State Dept. to Address Mistreatment of Minority Foreign Service Officers At the U.S. Border

There are “debilitating effects on the morale of our Black, Hispanic and other minority officers [from] this systemic discrimination,” said the organization. 

Retired diplomats are calling on the State Department to address the mistreatment, discrimination and harassment of its Black, Hispanic and other minority employees at border entry points to the United States.  

The American Academy of Diplomats, an association of former foreign service officials that works to strengthen American diplomacy, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday that the issue is not new. However, the association is pushing the department to take action as the country is in a moment of reckoning for its “long-standing racial issues,” following recent nationwide protests. The department concurred that all employees deserve to be treated with respect by other federal officials and said it’s committed to promoting diversity.   

“Problems include [Customs and Border Protection] officers not accepting standard diplomatic documents; placing Black and Hispanic officers in secondary examination without cause; and repeated hostile questioning and delays,” the letter stated. “This is made even more glaring when they travel with Caucasian colleagues who pass through with the same documentation ...We are confident you share our concern regarding the debilitating effects on the morale of our Black, Hispanic and other minority officers that this systemic discrimination from staff of another U.S. government agency has.” 

The letter referenced a blog post that has gone viral written by Tianna Spears, a Black former foreign service officer, five days after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in May. Spears described harsh treatment by CBP officers while posted at a U.S. consulate in Mexico that caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. She ultimately left the department in October 2019 at 27 years old. 

“I felt angry that this career opportunity I dreamed of since I was 19 was something I had to flee to save myself,” Spears wrote. Also, “to date, nothing has been done and not one person has been held responsible for the harassment I endured.” 

As a result of that situation and others, the retired diplomats organization asked Pompeo to consider conducting a department-wide review of the incidents reported by officers and looking at measures that can prevent mistreatment the border; reviewing the issue at the senior leadership level, along with the Homeland Security Department; and communicating to employees that officials will not tolerate such misconduct and reported situations are expected to be addressed. 

Amb. Charles Ray, a Vietnam War veteran and former ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe, told Government Executive he was “surprised” to learn that “the pattern of discriminatory treatment of minority [foreign service officers] doesn't seem to have changed much over time,” which is not affected by the administration’s political affiliation. Ray shared two personal stories of issues he faced during his career. 

“When I was ambassador to Cambodia, I traveled to Hawaii for a conference. I arrived in Honolulu on an early flight from Japan and presented my diplomatic passport to the immigration officer, a young white woman, who immediately began interrogating me. After several questions, I asked her why I was getting the third degree, and she said, ‘I wanted to make sure you spoke English.’ I was shocked, but decided to make a joke of it, asking, ‘Did I pass your test?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That's good,’ I said. ‘Because, I'm from Texas, and most people think that folks from Texas can't speak English.’ She glared at me and brusquely shoved my passport back at me. No sense of humor at all. 

The second incident happened when I was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for [Prisoner of War]/Missing Personnel Affairs, and was coming back from a conference in Colombia. At the Miami airport, as the Air Force colonel who was my aide and I arrived at immigration, the officer looked at my passport, at me, and asked me to stand to the side. He passed my colonel through and I stood there until his supervisor arrived, and after one look at my diplomatic passport and snow-white hair, apologized for the inconvenience and sent me on my way. Neither officer ever explained why I was pulled aside in the first place, but the supervisor did at least apologize.”

“No one deserves to be treated by DHS personnel in the manner that has been documented recently,” said Amb. Nancy Powell, who served as ambassador to Uganda, Ghana, Pakistan, Nepal, and India during her 37-year foreign service career. “State and DHS need to be working together to protect the national security of the U.S. and this kind of behavior does not enhance the prospects for such cooperation.”

Powell, who is white, said that with the exception of an incident in the early 2000s in Chicago at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, she “never encountered the kinds of abuse that were documented recently by [Spears].” 

A State Department spokesperson told Government Executive the department is committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce and is seeking input on this from all bureaus for its 2020-2024 strategic plan.

“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,” said the spokesperson, on background. “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.” Additionally, officials are aware of Spears’ blog post and “take allegations such as these very seriously,” the spokesperson said. 

The Government Accountability Office reported in February that although the State Department is committed to improving racial and gender representation in its workforce, there was “uneven progress” from 2002 to 2018. 

The American Academy of Diplomats said that part of developing a diverse agency is senior leadership “ensur[ing] that all department officers get the respect and dignity from U.S. law enforcement officials, which every American is entitled to at the border and international entry points.”