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Keynote Remarks of Acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan at Business Leadership Forum to combat Human Trafficking

Release Date

Business Leadership Forum to Combat Human Trafficking

United Way Center on Human Trafficking and Slavery

Sept. 5, 2017

Alexandria, Va.

Thank you, and good afternoon everyone. I’m pleased to participate in this business leadership forum on human trafficking. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked in countries around the world – including this country.

This modern-day slavery generates billions of dollars in profits for criminal enterprises. By some estimates, this places human trafficking second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime. Nearly every country is affected – whether as a country of origin, of transit, or destination of victims.

Spikes in migration – such as those being experienced by the European Union in the wake of war and persecution in the Middle East and the surges we have seen on our own border with Mexico as people flee poverty and unrest in Central America – can both fuel and conceal human trafficking. The migrants making their way north from Central America are often exploited by “coyotes” who are in league with criminal networks that engage in human trafficking. These people – the most defenseless and desperate – are then sold into bondage by the very people they trusted to guide them on their dangerous journey.

It’s a deeply complex, global problem. So it’s going to take a network of deeply committed organizations who are focused on working together to identify, prevent, and disrupt this activity. The United Way Center on Human Trafficking and Slavery is doing a tremendous job in bringing together the right groups to take on this fight.

I appreciate this opportunity to tell you how U.S. Customs and Border Protection is working with its public and private sector partners and stakeholders to address the problem – building on the strong record of my predecessor, former Commissioner Kerlikowske.

Most of you already know the size and scope of the human trafficking and slavery problem. Certain segments of the population are especially vulnerable, particularly children and young women.

CBP is uniquely positioned to help fight this battle. We are on the front line in protecting and patrolling our borders. As the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, we can leverage our resources – our CBP officers at our ports of entry, our Border Patrol agents patrolling between those ports of entry, our relationships with our trade and travel stakeholders, as well as our global connections and reach – to help the United Way and other organizations committed to this fight.

Our border security mission’s primary focus is keeping terrorists and their weapons of terror out of our country, but our mission success depends on how well we handle two basic elements: travel and trade.

So today, I want to share how each of these two aspects of our mission contributes to our ability to combat human trafficking and forced labor.

CBP, by the very nature of its mission, is in the vanguard of this battle. Our officers and agents are typically the first people travelers encounter upon arriving in the United States.

Just eight days ago, a CBP officer at Dulles Airport encountered a female citizen of Spain, traveling with her minor child, who arrived on a flight from Paris.

The woman stated she was a victim of human trafficking and that a Russian criminal organization was forcing her to work as a maid and have sex with men against her will in Spain to pay off a debt.

The traveler added that the Russian woman had grown impatient at the rate the debt was being paid off, and had sent her to the U.S. to earn more money more quickly. HSI’s Human Trafficking Division responded and took the woman and her child to a shelter for further processing and interviews.

In most cases, however, human trafficking victims are traveling with their captors who are very careful to control and isolate them.

We have developed numerous tools for screening incoming travelers, and the same risk-analysis techniques used to prevent the entry of terrorists and other criminals can be used to intercept human traffickers.

In addition to the risk assessment approach, CBP also applies biographic and biometric system queries to each traveler, who is also interviewed by a CBP officer. That’s a key part of our frontline effort to combat human trafficking, because the interview determines the purpose of their travel.

So, we are 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.

Let me address several programs and initiatives that are integral to our efforts to combat human trafficking in the travel environment.

Launched in 2010 by DHS, the Blue Campaign coordinates programs from DHS component agencies by collaborating with partners across government, law enforcement, and the private sector. For example, through partnership with Travel Centers of America, campaign posters have been placed at 325 TCA truck stops nationwide.

The Blue Campaign is organized around “three Ps”: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution.

  • Prevention: DHS conducts public outreach, both domestically and abroad. You may have noticed some of our advertisement outreach efforts while traveling through airports around the country.

  • Protection: DHS provides immigration assistance in the form of special visas, as well as victim assistance specialists to work in tandem with law enforcement and non-governmental service providers throughout the country. DHS actively offers assistance materials that inform potential victims of their rights and how to receive help if they feel they are being exploited or violated.

  • Prosecution: Every year, DHS trains thousands of federal, state, local and international law enforcement officials to recognize the indicators of human trafficking and to conduct successful human trafficking investigations.

DHS and component agencies – including CBP – work across their missions to combat human trafficking every day, whether as part of a federal investigation, during domestic or international operations, during high-profile events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics, at U.S. immigration offices, at our borders and ports of entry, in disaster areas, and on the high seas.

CBP and the Department of Transportation lead the initiative in coordination with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), nongovernmental organizations and private industry.

Now let me talk about another campaign. Launched in 2013, the Blue Lightning Initiative, or BLI, is a partnership between CBP and the Department of Transportation, boosting awareness about human trafficking as it pertains to the airline industry.

That’s an important audience. 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.

The Blue Lightning Initiative disseminates information about common “indicators” that airline workers may encounter. 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.

Most importantly, BLI instructs airline employees on how to report suspected trafficking to law enforcement – both in-flight and on the ground.

BLI includes a computer-based training module and associated materials on the indicators of suspected human trafficking and methods for airline personnel to alert federal law enforcement.

Airline employees can follow their airline’s reporting protocol for in-flight notification or call the ICE HSI Tip Line to report suspected human trafficking activity to federal law enforcement.

On international flights to the United States, the real-time reporting mechanism provides law enforcement officials with additional time to identify suspected victims or suspected traffickers, and allows CBP to conduct research and analysis and coordinate an appropriate situational response before the plane arrives.

Let me share one recent incident with you.

A Delta Airlines employee trained in BLI alerted the HSI tip line regarding a possible human trafficking victim flying from Seattle to LAX.

CBP’s National Targeting Center coordinated with HSI authorities in Seattle and Los Angeles for an outbound pre-departure interview in Seattle.

HSI contacted the victim’s mother, who confirmed that she had filed a local police report, that she had been unable to locate her daughter and that the girl had some mental health issues. The girl was taken to a Seattle-area hospital and the victim’s mother was able to provide the phone number the victim was using to contact the suspected traffickers.

Turning to our trade enforcement mission, CBP is also well-positioned to help disrupt the criminal networks that exploit forced labor.

Our role in helping to secure the global supply chain by making sure that only lawful cargo enters the U.S. places CBP – specifically, our Office of Trade – in an excellent position to combat the importation of goods produced with forced labor.

The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA) of 2015 strengthens our authorities to prohibit the importation of goods, made wholly or in part, with convict, indentured or forced labor. That includes forced child labor.

CBP works closely with ICE to review and investigate allegations of forced labor, and we also consult with the Department of Labor and the Department of State.

As I mentioned, we have some important authorities. One of the most significant is the ability to issue a withhold release order – a “WRO” – if we have evidence that reasonably shows that goods made wholly or in part with forced labor are being imported or are likely to be imported.

Under former Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske’s leadership, CBP issued four withhold release orders – or WROs – during Fiscal Year 2016. CBP actively enforces 31 WROs, covering a wide range of commodities, from garlic to furniture and cigarettes.

Shipments subject to WROs will be interdicted at our ports of entry and held from release into the commerce of the United States while CBP conducts a more detailed review of the shipment’s production records. During this time, importers can abandon the goods, re-export the shipment, or demonstrate that the goods were not made with forced labor.

After this additional review, CBP may determine that the shipment can be released into the United States, excluded from the United States or seized, depending on the level of information available to CBP.

To that end, our authorities also contain mechanisms for importers to be able to seek judicial review of CBP’s determination to ensure that the merchandise is properly released into the commerce of the United States if the importer can demonstrate that the goods were not produced with forced labor.

As you all know, none of us can tackle this issue alone. We count on inter-agency and public/private partnerships to heighten awareness about this issue and to help us combat these illegal activities.

In 2011, partly in response to a 2007 GAO report that recommended a federal coordinating body to combat human trafficking, the Justice Department joined forces with DHS and the Department of Labor to create Anti-trafficking Coordination Teams. These teams are located in six U.S. cities and comprise federal investigators and prosecutors from the USAO, FBI, ICE HSI, and Labor’s Inspector General and Wage and Hour Division.

In addition, the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC) is an interagency federal effort designed to be a clearinghouse for information on human trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism. We want to establish that same kind of coordination among state and local law enforcement – because they may be in the best position to identify and locate victims – as well as among nongovernmental organizations, where victims may more readily seek assistance.

Moreover, aid and service organizations assist human trafficking victims by providing assistance to address their short-term and long-term needs. These include legal and immigration services, housing, employment, education, food, clothing, job training, medical care, and child care.

My predecessor, former Commissioner Kerlikowske – who is here today – committed CBP to participating in a Working Group with key civil society groups. These groups also make important contributions to the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee, or “COAC,” which is also has its own working group on forced labor.

As you know, it takes everyone –federal, state, and local governments, private sector businesses, nonprofit organizations, service providers, faith-based groups – working together to combat human trafficking. CBP is steadfast in its commitment to leveraging its travel and trade facilitation and enforcement missions to help stop human trafficking and forced labor. This is a critically important discussion, and I want to thank you for inviting me here today to share CBP’s perspective with you.

Last Modified: February 3, 2021