“I was a freshly minted 26-year-old U.S. diplomat, stationed at the U.S. Consulate General in Mexico, just a few miles from the border. Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are effectively two halves of a single metropolitan area of over 2 million people, and the line between them is one of the busiest border crossings in the world. Residents of one side frequently drive over the border to shop, go to the doctor or dine at restaurants. All the diplomats working at the consulate visit El Paso frequently; some even send their children to school on the Texas side, and cross the border as often as twice a day for school activities.
If you’re working at the State Department, like I was, and traffic isn’t bad, your trip across the border usually just takes a few minutes. The border between Juarez and El Paso has two lanes set aside for “trusted travelers,” people who travel frequently into and out of the country and who’ve been vetted in advance by the U.S. government. This group, which includes business travelers and diplomats, carry a pass known as a SENTRI card, issued by CBP, which is supposed to allow “expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” You’re directed to special lanes and hold your card up to a camera a few feet in front of a booth manned by CBP officers. Most of the time the officers wave through travelers using SENTRI cards, so the whole process takes just a few seconds. But if the officers have questions about the identity of the travelers, or any other suspicion, they can flag them off to the side for additional questioning and searches, including putting the car through an X-ray machine.
This is called “secondary inspection,” and sometimes being picked out for secondary inspection is just arbitrary, like a random check by the Transportation Security Agency at an airport. It’s rare for U.S. consular officers to be regularly pulled over; in addition to having a SENTRI card, we carry diplomatic passports. Some of my fellow diplomats have told me they had not once been pulled into secondary inspection after living in Juarez for years. One told me he was always greeted with, “Welcome home to America, sir.””
“On one level, there was no obvious reason they were stopping me. I had passed extensive background and security checks to get my job and to qualify for a SENTRI card. CBP’s own website says that to get a SENTRI card, “all applicants undergo a rigorous background check and in-person interview.”
There was one difference between me and my colleagues who rarely if ever got stopped: The vast majority of my colleagues were white, while I’m Black. But I was a U.S. citizen, and a diplomat. I had taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Could the color of my skin really be why I was being singled out?”