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  4. Commissioner Kerlikowske’s Remarks on CBP’s Blue Lightning Initiative and the Importance of Combating Human Trafficking

Commissioner Kerlikowske’s Remarks on CBP’s Blue Lightning Initiative and the Importance of Combating Human Trafficking

Release Date

Remarks as Prepared for August 3, 2016

Thank you, Assistant Director [Chad] Makovsky [Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport], for facilitating this important engagement to discuss how each of us can play a role in combating human trafficking. Together, we can make a world of difference.

All over the country, local communities are asking how they can help fight this heinous crime. President Barack Obama calls human trafficking an outrage “which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.”

And last month on July 15, the President signed into law the FAA Reauthorization that includes an annual requirement that flight attendants must be trained on how to identify human trafficking and how to report it.

Phoenix, in particular, is no stranger to this. In 2014, I know some of you here today were part of a collaborative effort to get the awareness out there in preparation for the Super Bowl, letting your community know what to look for and who to call. 

Nearly every country is affected – whether as a country of origin, of transit, or destination of victims. Law enforcement and government at all levels – federal, state, and local – need everyone’s help – hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, schools,  big corporations, small businesses, churches, advocacy groups, victim service providers… everybody. The more people we partner with to train about what to look for, and who to call to report it, the bigger difference we can make together.

Today, I want to focus on the transportation industry’s role, specifically, the airlines and airports. When a flight attendant notices something on a plane or a ticket agent gets the sense that something just isn’t right when checking travelers in for a flight, our training provides airline personnel information on what to look for, what to do, and who to call.

The Department of Homeland Security plays a significant role in combating human trafficking. The DHS Blue Campaign is the unified voice for the Department of Homeland Security’s collaboration efforts to work with law enforcement, government, non-governmental and private organizations through awareness and education. 

The Blue Campaign has resources and training available to you and your organization. The Blue Lightning Initiative is my own agency’s role as part of the Blue Campaign that centers around our work with airlines, to train airline personnel about what to look for and what to do if you suspect a case of human trafficking.

Our sister agency, ICE, leads the investigations of cases of human trafficking, and also has been a leader in law enforcement in taking a victim centered approach to these investigations, placing value on their Victim/Witness Coordinators. Local ICE HSI Special Agent in Charge Brad Bench is here and you will hear from him in a minute.

At CBP, our officers and agents at and in between our ports of entry are on the front lines — processing international travelers and apprehending individuals trying to illegally cross our borders. CBP is uniquely positioned at the border to recognize and intercept human traffickers and, hopefully, rescue their victims as they travel through our ports of entry and across our borders.

I’d like to elaborate a little bit more about how my agency works to combat human trafficking. On a typical day, CBP processes more than one million people and screens more than 70,000 truck, rail, and sea cargo containers. So we’re on the frontline to recognize human trafficking – at 328 land, air, and sea ports of entry and along 7,500 miles of border. Of the one million travelers who enter the United States every day – nearly 30 percent, or more than 100 million per year – arrive on a commercial flight.

On a daily basis, CBP combats transnational criminal organizations; drug smugglers and traffickers of every stripe; large-scale counterfeiting operations; and all kinds of fraud involving customs and immigration. These are typically huge operations – sophisticated networks that often take years to disrupt and dismantle.

Human trafficking is no different – it is an organized and highly profitable criminal enterprise. And we must apply all of our resources and skills to fighting this terrible crime.

We work closely with our DHS counterparts – ICE, TSA, USCIS who is the agency responsible for administering immigration benefits, and the U.S. Coast Guard – to battle human trafficking through prevention, protection, and prosecution. 

CBP’s National Targeting Center (NTC) serves an active role on the Blue Campaign’s Law Enforcement Working Group which provides information on training and outreach, how traffickers operate, and victim assistance to help keep the public informed. In addition, the NTC exchanges intelligence with foreign partners, as well as federal, state and local partners.

CBP officers are not only here in the United States – they are also stationed in other countries through our Preclearance Operations and they are also trained to spot human trafficking victims.

Through CBP Preclearance operations, the same immigration, customs, and agriculture inspections of international air passengers performed on arrival in the United States are instead completed before departure at foreign airports. This allows the United States and our international partners to jointly identify and address threats at the earliest possible point, before they arrive in the United States, and also puts us in the position to identify human trafficking beyond our traditional borders.

Training also plays a huge role. As part of basic training, all CBP officers and agents are taught: the differences between human smuggling and human trafficking; how to detect human trafficking; and what to do upon an encounter.

And all officers and agents take Human Trafficking Awareness training annually. 

And the heart of our work with airlines under the Blue Lightning Initiative is also training so airline personnel know what to look for and who to call.

CBP launched the Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI) in 2013 to provide airlines and their employees a voluntary mechanism to identify potential human trafficking victims and notify federal authorities. BLI brings together DHS components like ICE and the Federal Air Marshals, and it also involves: the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center; the Federal Aviation Administration under the Department of Transportation; non-governmental organizations; and the private sector.

The core of BLI is our work with the airline industry. From ticket agents who handle travel documents and ask routine questions of travelers as part of the boarding process … to flight crews who have extended time with passengers, airline employees are skilled observers.

CBP helps train airline employees on what to look for and how to immediately report their suspicions to the proper authorities for further investigation.

And we want to partner with airlines through a formal partnership.

To date, we have 5 airlines as official Blue Lightning Initiative Partners: Delta; JetBlue; Silver Airways; Allegiant Air; and – as of just last month – SkyWest.

And we hope that these five are just the beginning. This training is important and we take it very seriously because we know it makes a difference. When a flight attendant sees something in the air and knows something isn’t right, the right training allows them to know what to look for, what to do, and who to call. 

A recent example of how effective this training is involves a flight attendant for Allegiant Air. The flight attendant had taken the BLI training and noticed certain behaviors exhibited by a man and the group he was traveling with. The flight attendant followed the company’s protocols for reporting her concerns to law enforcement, who met the aircraft upon its arrival here in Phoenix.

I’d like to conclude by emphasizing once again how important our collaboration and partnerships are – with all of you. As you know, it takes everyone – federal, state, and local governments, private sector businesses, nonprofit organizations, service providers, faith-based groups, etc. – to work together to combat human trafficking. This is a critically important discussion, and I want to thank you all for supporting these efforts.

Last Modified: February 3, 2021