A Survival Guide to Crossing the Border.

In other disappointing and frustrating news, The State Department is still assigning Black and Brown diplomats to border posts. My inbox and comments below my blog are full of identical stories of blatant harassment, racism, bullying, and discrimination. This is infuriating when absolutely nothing has been done to address the treatment of people of color by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the underlying issues within the State Department. By address, I mean accountability, disciplinary action, and a safe and inclusive workplace culture where employees are comfortable coming forward to speak truth to power about their abusers.

Stop sending Black and Brown diplomats to border posts. CBP has not been held accountable and the State Department will not protect you. Stop forcing Black and Brown bodies into unsafe spaces and then telling them that there is no way out.

For every person who reached out to me, this is written for you from my own personal experience. My hope is that you will never have to use this. However, if you find yourself in this position, I hope that my survival guide is helpful.

In order to cross a border as a person of color, you must first find an ally. An ally is someone who is kind, trustworthy, and responsive in their communication. Hopefully, this person is a colleague that becomes a friend, lives near you, and knows how to contact management. This person is empathetic, understanding, attentive, and knows what the deal is even before you explain. This is the best kind of ally in a professional setting.

Before we begin, promise me that you will not cross until you find this person. The rule is that you must never leave your house without first contacting your ally. They should know where you are at all times. In text message communication, they should receive the following- a text message to state your departure from your home, an estimated time of arrival at the border, and a pre-written text in case you are flagged to secondary inspection. It may be helpful to share your location with them. Since you cannot use your phone in secondary inspection, you should plan ahead and organize. By selecting this person as your ally, you trust their judgment and put your safety and wellbeing in their hands.

Choose wisely.

To cross the border, you must rely upon these qualities- composure, non-verbal communication, judgment, resourcefulness, and oral and written communication.

1. Composure

  • Before departing, place all identification in a location close to you inside the car. For example, I used the center console of my car or the cupholder.
  • Upon arrival at the border, keep your hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel at all times.
  • Calmly attempt to answer any questions regarding citizenship, job, and purpose of travel. Be prepared to answer anything. Your responses and body language may be “calm, poised, and effective in stressful or difficult situations.”
  • When asked for identification, always ask for permission from the official. Tell the official exactly where the identification is and your course of action for obtaining the documentation. Confirm verbal approval from the official before you reach. Many of us learned this when we were younger. Most Black and Brown parents in America give this speech before their child learns to drive. Diplomat or not, these unspoken rules still apply.

2. Non-Verbal Communication

  • If possible, maintain a neutral facial expression.
  • If you cry from exhaustion, do not wipe the tears from your face. Never make any sudden movements.
  • Pay attention to any inconsistencies. What is the line of questioning? Does this match what you were previously asked? Does questioning and reasoning differ in primary and secondary inspection? Is it the same officer(s)?
  • While looking directly at the official, use direct eye contact to establish the following- what is their appearance, eye color, hair color, and age? Most importantly, what is their name and/ or badge number? This information is necessary for later. Practice by looking at license plates while you wait in traffic. For example, read the license plate and repeat aloud five times. Look away and repeat to yourself until it is ingrained in your memory. Practice. This will help you when you sit on a metal bench in secondary inspection while your car is searched. Repeat the name of the official five times in your head.
  • Keep a notepad in your car and a pen to write down specific, pertinent information when you make it to the other side. Lastly, make sure your ally knows that you made it across.

3. Judgment

  • Ask your colleagues about their experiences crossing the border. Be selective with who you choose to share with regarding your experiences. Selecting the wrong person will feel defeating in the long run. Choose wisely.
  • When management and colleagues offer their phone numbers and offer to cross the border with you, do not accept. Is this practical? Why would you need a guardian to enter a country where you were born and serve? Don’t you have the same documentation and diplomatic passport as your colleagues and those in management? Instead, ask who crosses the border with them. Chances are that they cross alone. Use your judgment to determine why there is inconsistency in experiences.

4. Resourcefulness

  • There is something powerful about acting before the inevitable occurs. This is your choice, of course.
  • For healing and companionship, consider adopting a pet and registering your animal as an emotional support animal (resource I used). This is easy to do online.
  • Find community near your home. This could be a WhatsApp group, safe space, or a weekday dinner invitation. It could be a knitting club, yoga class, meditation (what I use), or coffee. Invite a friend to explore your backyard and discover a rosemary tree. 
  • To cross a border, I advise you to first find a therapist that specializes in trauma. This website is where I found my amazing therapist.
  • The resources you find to support you is how you continue to reclaim your power. These resources differ for each person. At the end of the day, you still have your voice, strength, and power.

5. Oral and Written Communication

  • Speak your truth when you meet with management and security officers. If you stumble across words, take a deep breath. Remember, there is no correct or appropriate style of communication.
  • When you speak, what is your request? Your ask should be specific and easily measurable. For example, in a specific amount of time (make sure you specify in writing via email), you should be able to answer yes or no when asked if you can cross into your own country without fear and harassment. You should be able to answer yes or no when asked if the situation is resolved.
  • Do not let anyone apologize to you and do not let anyone apologize to you without significant action behind their words. Multiple apologies are followed by inaction and lack of accountability.
  • Do not let anyone convey that life will improve in a different location. Do not accept curtailment, pack your bags, and say goodbye to people that you just met. You should not have to readjust your life. This is your story. You will carry this with you even if you relocate.
  • In regards to oral communication, every word that you speak goes in an email. Everything said to you in a meeting should be followed up in an email for a paper trail of documentation.
    • Chances are, this is not the first time this happened to someone at post. Chances are, your manager’s computer files did not crash (as she told me) and this person still has record of every incident of abuse, harassment, racism, discrimination, and bullying at post. Often, the person you may explain your abuse to is someone who is an abuser. Proceed onward and document everything.
  • If it is not in an email, it never happened. Keep this in mind.
  • Toni Morrison said, “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”
  • Lastly, management has every resource, ability, and responsibility to protect you and to hold those accountable. Do not allow anyone to refer you to a hotline, email address, or mailing address. Do not accept curtailment as the only solution. This is a distraction.

For everyone who wrote me, I want you and everyone else to know that you are deserving of a workplace free of harassment where you can grow both personally and professionally. You worked hard to get here. Take up every bit of space that you can and you will be alright. We know you represent America and deserve to be celebrated. You deserve a seat at the table. We see you. We hear you. We owe it to you to give you a workplace that meets the criteria of your wildest dreams. 

I hope that you will never have to use this. If you do, I am proud of you for using your voice.

Thank you for your service.

Sincerely yours,

Tianna Spears

2 thoughts on “A Survival Guide to Crossing the Border.

  1. 18 U.S. Code § 242. Deprivation of rights under color of law
    Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

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