Driving over the George Washington Bridge to pick up my husband and daughter at Newark Airport after a week’s vacation in Cancun, México to visit his family, I received a call from an official from Port Authority. This person identified himself as a sergeant and proceeded to tell me that there was an ‘incident’ on the plane that involved my husband and daughter. My heart was in my throat ― I couldn’t even bring myself to respond because my mind was racing to grasp all of the possibilities of what could have happened on the plane. My biggest fear: were they hurt? The sergeant assured me that they were both fine, but I was already in shock, and it felt as if my whole world was closing in on me.
My husband is Mexican. I am of Irish descent. Our daughter, three years old, looks like both of us: she has dark hair and almond eyes with white skin. They had traveled to Mexico to spend time with his mother, her grandmother, who they see but once a year. This was precious time, time for my daughter to connect with her father’s side of the family, and I embraced them going, while I stayed home because of work. I had never imagined what would happen upon their return.
The “incident”: another passenger on the plane, who was obviously inebriated, accused my husband of child trafficking. She claimed that my fair-skinned daughter didn’t look like her Mexican father, and stoked suspicion that he had kidnapped her. This passenger had no basis for this claim, nor any evidence to back it up.
When I learned what had happened, I burst into tears. How could this be?
Recalling the details now, I still struggle to believe them.
After our 3-year-old snoozed on her father’s lap for most of the flight, the plane landed. He texted me to tell me they had arrived. When the plane taxied to the gate, however, a number of officers from the Port Authority and Customs and Border Patrol boarded the plane, approached my husband and instructed him to grab his carry-ons and follow them. He and our daughter were escorted out of the plane before anyone else could get off.
Once out of the plane, four officers from Port Authority and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) surrounded them. They fired so many questions at him that he didn’t know who was asking what. He had no idea what was going on. Our daughter started to cry in all of the commotion.
After asking about where our daughter was born, who was there, and where her birth certificate had been issued, they asked for my phone number; that was when they called me, asking me the same questions in order to verify the story. At that point they seemed satisfied that my husband was not, in fact, trafficking our daughter. They then told me that this accusation was not coming from the CBP, who were trained to identify these kind of situations, but from a passenger on the plane. They were following protocol to act on reported suspicions such as this. They told me that it was not worth it to investigate the accuser’s mental state.
“A simple check of the passports or flight records would clearly show that there was no problem in this situation.”
The passenger who shared her “concern” with the flight attendants had been sitting next to my husband. According to him, she had been friendly throughout the flight, but my husband noticed her strange obsession with our daughter, sometimes throwing her body over his to try to engage my daughter.
There was no indication whatsoever ― other than the passenger’s racially charged observation ― that my husband had anything but a perfectly normal, loving relationship with his daughter. There had been no incident. There will always be individuals who make racist remarks ― my husband and I are no strangers to this fact. Again, my husband is Mexican. Therefore, he is a target, and in effect, so is our family.
We never thought, however, that flight attendants on a major airline ― United Airlines ― would choose to take such an observation seriously ― and in doing so, that the Port Authority and CBP would drag my husband and daughter off an airplane and interrogate them with a presumption of guilt. Never mind that he was traveling with a green card, carrying passports with the same last name and a notarized letter stating that I was allowing my daughter to travel to México for the week.
When I filed a complaint with the customer service department, they responded a few days later with an apology and a $100.00 travel voucher. This is useless to us because we won’t ever fly with this particular airline again. Furthermore, it is more important to us that United and other airlines review its procedures. A simple check of the passports or flight records would clearly show that there was no problem in this situation and would have prevented the drama and stress that it created.
This was a terrifying experience for us. To be escorted out of the plane by security officers and interrogated in that way. To receive a phone call from a man asking me where my baby had been born. To then be accompanied by more officers in order to find my husband and daughter, who were still being held in security, even though the case had been “dropped.” In this hateful political climate, we have been prepared, or so I thought ― but we could never have been prepared for this.