United Nations General Assembly

Cindy McCain, second from right, co-chair of the McCain Institute's Human Trafficking Advisory Council, and trafficking survivor Rani Hong, second from left, listen after addressing the human rights conference, "Stepping Up Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking," during the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The story Cindy McCain told Monday on an Arizona radio show was unsettling: Just last week, she said, she witnessed human trafficking at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport — a child victim.

She said it was a lesson in the Department of Homeland Security motto: “If you see something, say something.”

“I came in from a trip I’d been on and I spotted — it looked odd,” McCain, co-chair of the governor’s Arizona Human Trafficking Council and widow of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told KTAR News. “It was a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had, and something didn’t click with me. I tell people, trust your gut. I went over to the police and told them what I thought, and they went over and questioned her. And by God, she was trafficking that kid.”

The radio show hosts were aghast.

“No way!” one said.

“And you said a toddler?” the other asked.

“Yes,” McCain said. “A toddler. It was a toddler. She was waiting for the guy who brought the child to get off the airplane.”

But the Phoenix Police Department on Wednesday disputed that any human trafficking had taken place that day in statements to other local Phoenix news outlets, leading McCain to issue an apology. The longtime advocate for human trafficking victims and the mother of an adopted Bangladeshi daughter, McCain said she hoped the mistake would not deter others from abiding by the DHS motto.

“At Phoenix Sky Harbor, I reported an incident that I thought was trafficking,” she wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “I commend the police officers for their diligence. I apologize if anything else I have said on this matter distracts from ‘if you see something, say something.’ ”

Phoenix police told KTAR and CBS 5 on Wednesday that investigators arrived to perform a welfare check on the child at the airport Jan. 30 following McCain’s complaint but found “no evidence of criminal conduct or child endangerment.”

The case fits in with others in recent years in which parents of children whose skin color or ethnicity differs from theirs fell under suspicion from other travelers or authorities at airports.

In December 2017, a white Arizona man said he was accused at the same Phoenix airport of trafficking his own 16-year-old daughter, whom he and his wife adopted from China. The man, Brian Smith, told ABC 15 that police approached him at a terminal as soon as he got off the plane and said a flight attendant “had some concerns” about his daughter. Southwest Airlines sent a “heartfelt apology” to the family, adding that flight attendants had been trained to flag possible human trafficking.

“I don’t like to accuse anyone of anything,” the girl’s mother, Renee Smith, told ABC 15. “But if Georgianna was a Caucasian child, I don’t believe this would have happened.”

Something similar happened again last May. Lindsay Gottlieb, the women’s basketball coach at the University of California at Berkeley, who is white, said that a Southwest Airlines employee asked her to “prove” that her 1-year-old biracial son was really hers. The employee at Denver International Airport asked her to serve up the boy’s birth certificate, Gottlieb said.

“She said because we have different last names. My guess is because he has a different skin color,” Gottlieb wrote on Twitter.

The airline said in a statement to The Washington Post that it was sorry “if our interaction made this family uncomfortable. That is never our intention.” It added that Southwest’s policy is to verify that children traveling in a parent’s lap are younger than 2 by reviewing a birth certificate or government-issued ID, and that the airline must verify additional paperwork for those traveling to certain international locations with a minor.

McCain has frequently urged travelers to familiarize themselves with signs of human trafficking and to speak up if they notice something suspicious, as she told KTAR on Monday. Human trafficking is also a core research focus at the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, where McCain serves on the Human Trafficking Advisory Council and the board of trustees.

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