April 17, 2021

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Customs and Border Protection officer says racism at Michigan-Canada border happens daily: ‘It needs to be exposed’

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PORT HURON, Mich. — Officer Johnny Grays still fumes about the day he pulled his gun on a driver while the man’s children screamed in the back seat, “Don’t shoot my daddy!” 

The driver wouldn’t turn off his engine or roll down his window as asked at the inspection border station in Port Huron, Michigan. Then he refused to show his hands, but instead reached in his coat pocket and then the glove box — so Grays drew his gun and pointed it at the motorist’s head, fearing he was armed.

Turned out, the driver was only looking for his key fob. 

He was Black. So is Grays, a Customs and Border Protection officer who is now suing the federal government, alleging racial profiling put him in harm’s way that day, caused an innocent family to be terrorized and for years has demeaned and humiliated scores of Black travelers at the  border crossing between Port Huron and Sarnia, Canada.

Johnny Lee Grays, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer under the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Thursday, March 18, 2021.

In a new lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, three Black CBP officers are suing the Department of Homeland Security, alleging CBP routinely targets and harasses Black travelers at the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia. Of the 275 CBP officers who work at that location, four are Black.

The Michigan lawsuit highlights what some immigration and civil rights advocates describe as a pervasive and unchecked problem of racial profiling at CBP, an agency they say has been steeped in institutional racism for decades.  Similar racial profiling lawsuits have been filed over the years in Montana, Virginia, Texas, Washington, Ohio and Maine, though CBP has routinely denied culpability and avoided repercussions.

Nationwide, Black people account for less than 6% of the total CBP workforce of 21,185. More than 62% of employees are white; another 25% are Hispanic.

The CBP could not provide data on how many minorities versus white travelers are pulled over for secondary inspections at border crossings or how many are detained.

But in a March 25 report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan published the findings from thousands of documents involving Border Patrol arrests CBP released last year after a five-year legal battle.

The data, spanning nine years and including records of more than 13,000 stops, revealed that more than 95% of those arrested by Border Patrol in Michigan are people of color. 

“These are issues that we are seeing over and over. There have not been consequences in a culture of racism, of a brotherhood that protects other officers at all costs,” said Katy Murdza of the American Immigration Council and co-author of a report released in February titled: “The Legacy of Racism within the U.S. Border Patrol.”

“Unfortunately,” Murdza said, “a lot of these instances that we see have been consistent throughout history.”

Grays hopes to change that. 

 Grays, 42, who is married with three children, has worked at CBP for almost 13 years. He said not only has he witnessed racial profiling, but he has also been ordered to take part in it. And when he and his co-plaintiffs have complained about workplace discrimination, the suit states, they’ve either been ignored, harassed or retaliated against. Grays has been on desk duty since filing his discrimination complaint almost a year ago.

“There needs to be some accountability for what’s going on. It needs to be exposed,” Grays said in a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. He alleged racial profiling at the Port Huron-Canada border “is a daily thing.”‘

“These things are happening. Minorities and Blacks are being scrutinized at the border,” Grays said. “The main purpose of this lawsuit is to expose that and change that.”

CBP spokesman Kristoffer Grogan declined comment, citing agency policy not to comment on pending litigation, though in a 2018 interview he denied racial profiling by the agency.

International Flag Plaza near the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Grogan at the time was partially quoting the CBP’s nondiscrimination policy, which explains under what “exceptional circumstances” race can be considered by federal police.

“CBP personnel may use race or ethnicity when a compelling governmental interest is present and its use is narrowly tailored to that interest,” the policy states. National security is one compelling interest under the policy. Race or ethnicity-based information that is specific to particular suspects, incidents or ongoing criminal activities may also be considered by CBP.

But the policy contradicts what Grays and others say they have witnessed at border crossings and checkpoints across the country.

“‘Stop that Black guy’ … I have been told to do that,” said Grays, stressing he typically “shuts down” those requests and demands explanations.

That’s what he did the day he was ordered to pull over the Black driver who was fumbling for his key fob, he said. 

But he never got a straight answer. 

 ‘I had to make a judgement call’

It was March 2020 when Grays got the radio transmission to pull over the white GM Suburban with Maryland plates and tinted windows. An officer had spotted the SUV leaving a Port Huron hotel and heading for the bridge and became suspicious, he said. 

Grays did as he was ordered, quickly learning the travelers were Black.

Johnny Lee Grays, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer near the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Thursday, March 18, 2021.

When the SUV pulled up at the inspection station, Grays asked the driver to shut off the engine, but the man didn’t comply, he said. Then he asked him to roll his window down. Again, no response. Then he asked him to show his hands.

That’s when the man reached into his coat pocket, rifled through the glove box and finally rolled down the window. But by then Grays had drawn his gun and reached into the car yelling, “What are you doing?”

“I was feeling to see if he did in fact have a gun,” Grays recalled. “I had my gun about 12 inches from his face. I had to make a judgment call.”

And he had to keep his calm. There was a family to consider. 

“His two kids in the back seat were hysterical, crying, screaming, ‘Don’t shoot my daddy!'” Grays said. 

Yet he remained calm, long enough for the driver to explain himself.

“He said, ‘I was looking for the keys. This thing has a fob. It’s a rental car,'”  said Grays, noting the man simply got nervous because he didn’t know if he needed the fob to roll the window down.

The incident sent him reeling. The family, he would learn, were U.S. citizens headed to New York to visit family and were cutting through Canada.

“I confronted management about it. I was livid,” Grays recalled. “I said, ‘Look, had that not been me out there, you may have had a completely different situation.'”

Grays said he pressed his supervisor to explain why he had to stop the vehicle. The only response he got: “They said it was a good look,” he recalled. “When I asked what that means, I wasn’t given any more information.”

Shortly after that incident, Grays filed a race discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which granted him a right-to-sue letter on Jan. 12. Two months later, he and his colleagues, CBP officers Mikal Williams and Jermaine Broderick Sr., filed their lawsuit.

“I felt extremely bad for that family, especially for the kids,” Grays said. “I couldn’t think of a worse thing.”‘

‘This is our country, too’

One month before the key fob incident, Grays witnessed a CBP officer pull over a group of 17 Black men who were returning to the U.S. from Toronto in two late-model SUVs. They were all U.S. citizens and had valid passports, he said, but a secondary inspection was requested.

Grays was the first officer who came into contact with the group at the inspection station.

“They were upset,” he said, noting they had no idea why there were being scrutinized.

Grays said he explained to the group a secondary inspection typically occurs when an officer can’t verify a traveler’s information, documentation is missing or questionable, or the photo doesn’t match the person in the car.  Pulling drivers over helps inspectors conduct more research in order to verify information without causing delays for other passengers.

“They were completely compliant,” Grays said. “They were minding their own business and what happens next is an additional officer came out, saw them. And then what happened is something I’ve seen happen hundreds of times — the demeanor of the officer’s face changed.

“Nothing was said, his face just turned hateful. It’s a look I saw frequently in Georgia while living there during my instructor time at the academy.”

Grays said the situation grew tense in the waiting room. He felt the 17 men were being racially profiled. They did, too — if their words are any indication.

“They ended up getting up and leaving,” Grays recalled. “And on their way out, they were saying things like, ‘Hey, this is our country, too. We want to be treated like human beings.’ We legitimately had no reason to hold them there, so they got up and left.”

According to Grays, one of the 17 travelers appeared to have an issue with his documentation. Still, he noted, no one at CBP pursued the group after they left on their own.

“They were all U.S. citizens, returning to the United States,” Grays said.

After the incident, Grays went to his supervisors and requested the officers who interacted with the group receive disciplinary counseling, calling their behavior disrespectful and insulting. He also said “racial profiling was not in line” with the values of Homeland Security, which oversees his agency. According to the lawsuit, no one was ever disciplined. 

Attorney Deborah Gordon, who is representing the three officers, said this lawsuit is about her clients being forced to work in a hostile environment by having to watch Black drivers get mistreated, and protecting drivers’ rights at the border.

 “Unlike an employment case where you go to your Human Resources department,” Gordon said, “as a traveler at the border, you have no voice.” 

Traffic passes over the Ambassador Bridge.
This January 2019 photo, released by the ACLU of Montana, shows Martha "Mimi" Hernandez and Ana Suda in Havre, Mont., where a Border Patrol agent detained them for speaking Spanish in a convenient store. They sued and settled their lawsuit in November.

Follow Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @Tbaldas.

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