A Maryland father had an unsettling interaction with a Department of Homeland Security agent recently. The father, Jeff Gates, told his story in a column for the Washington Post.
For the last 14 years, Gates has taken a picture of his daughters standing together on the Cape May Ferry. It’s a tradition. But the tradition was interrupted this year when a man approached Gates’ daughters and asked them if they were alright.
"I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay,” Gates recalls the man, a Department of Homeland Security agent, saying.
At first, Gates was confused about why the agent approached his daughters. Then, it hit him:
“He thought I might be exploiting the girls,” Gates writes, “taking questionable photos for one of those ‘Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!’ Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away."
Gates writes that his adopted daughters are of Chinese descent. To an agent whose job is spotting unusual activity, even something as harmless as a transracial family can be suspicious. Gates approached the agent and asked him why he felt the need to approach his family.
“I work for the Department of Homeland Security,” the agent said. “And let me give you some advice: You were standing there taking photos of them hugging for 15 minutes.”
Gates admits he wasn’t sure how to feel about the incident. Should he be mad? Or was the agent just looking out for the safety of two possible trafficking victims?
“And all the while I kept wondering: Had he overreached when he approached us, or was he just being a good citizen, looking out for the welfare of two young women? Perhaps he was doing what his professional training had taught him to do: Look for things that seem out of place, and act on those observations. But what is normal and what is not?”
Gates admits he still hasn’t sorted out all of his feelings on the incident, but one thing is certain: it doesn’t sit well with him.
“Homeland Security instructs Americans: ‘If you see something, say something.’ But at what point do our instincts compel us to act? And when does our fear of getting involved stop us? What causes someone to perceive one thing when an entirely different thing is happening?”