Airport Scrutiny to Get Worse as House Moves to Mandate Sex-Trafficking Training

A plan to privatize air-traffic control operations has dominated discussion of the House's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, but the bill's regulatory parameters go far beyond that. An array of government expanding proposals are also included in the House's 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act.

One of them would require new mandatory training for all "ticket counter agents, gate agents, and other air carrier workers whose jobs require regular interaction with passengers" on "recognizing and resonding to potential human trafficking victims."

The trafficking-training amendment, from Rep. Julia Brownley (D-California), was one of dozens of AIRR-Act amendments voted on Tuesday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. After more than nine hours of markup and amendments, the Committee approved the AIRR Act, by a vote of 32 to 25.

On the surface, Brownley's trafficking amendment may seem beneficial, or at the very least harmless. But it's part of a larger and ongoing government project that is anything but benign. Under the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) "Blue Campaign" and related initiatives, federal agents have already been training flight attendants and other airline personnel on how to "detect" human traffickers or trafficking victims on their planes. They've also been conducting public outreach at airports and elsewhere to encourage ordinary travelers who "see something" suspicious to "say something"—by texting the tip directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

There is no evidence these efforts have actually yielded any trafficking busts—which shouldn't surprise anyone not immersed in some Taken-style fantasy. Immigrants who wind up victims of sex or labor exploitation here are generally lured via fraud—the promise of an opportunity that either doesn't exist or isn't what it was made out to be. Some enter the country illegally, but many come over on tourist, student, or temporary-work visas, flying into the country alone or with others in the same situation. "Potential human trafficking victims" flying into the U.S. on commercial flights through major U.S. airports aren't the sort who can be pre-screened by well-meaning gate agents.

But what do employees do with all that extra "awareness"? A heightened sensitivity to anything out-of-the-ordinary—which in the United States can still mean interracial families or a child traveling with two fathers—means a propensity to profile passengers based on stereotypes.

An Asian-American woman traveling with her non-Asian husband, a dad traveling alone with his daughter, a gaggle of young Korean women traveling together are the folks flagged by well-meaning and woke customer-service staff.

The ICE, DHS, and other law-enforcement staff who greet them aren't always so well-intentioned, although they are fast. "When reports come in to the hotline, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents come immediately to meet the plane as it reaches the ground," Deborah Sigmund, co-founder and president of the group Innocence at Risk, has said.

It's worth noting that Brownley's amendment provides no description of the kind of training airport employees will receive, how often they'll receive it, or who will develop and conduct it. Most likely, responsibility for the training will fall to DHS and its nonprofit advisers, which have already been involved in training truckers, flight attendants, and motel employees on the alleged "signs" of sex trafficking.

And from previous experience the training will be useless. The "signs" of sex trafficking they offer range from the rare and ridiculous (the stuff of action-movie lore, like someone with a bar-code tattoo with the word "Daddy" next to it) to excessively broad indicators that could ensnare any one of us on a bad day, such as being dressed "inappropriately" for travel, not knowing details about a flight, or not making prolonged eye contact.

Airline Ambassadors International, which often works with government officials on sex-trafficking awareness training, suggests that "children and young women traveling alone" should be considered suspect, as should people who say they are adults but have "adolescent features."

With crackerjack tips like this, it's not hard to see why DHS agencies have such a low ratio of human-trafficking investigations opened to trafficking arrests, prosecutions, and/or convictions. In 2015, ICE pursued 1,034 investigations "with a nexus to human trafficking," leading to a total of 752 federal indictments and 587 convictions—but just 104 arrests on sex-trafficking charges.

Much like "terrorism investigations" at the turn of this century, "human trafficking investigation" has become another handy pretense for putting "suspicious" foreigners in contact with DHS.