Stephanie Ung was flying home from a birthday celebration in Cancun with her best friend, and was excited to land in Georgia to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family, she said.
But the 26-year-old missed her family’s celebration because she and her friend were escorted off a Delta plane, detained and questioned for more than an hour by U.S. Customs and Border Protection when they landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Ung told WXIA.
“I just kept telling them that I wanted to go home for my family Thanksgiving dinner, and that they were making me late, but they just didn’t care,” Ung, who teaches kindergarten, told the TV station. “They just laughed.”
Atlanta is a hotbed for human trafficking, particularly because the Atlanta airport — where Ung says she was questioned and detained — is one of the largest and busiest in the country, FOX 5 reports.
That’s led to stepped-up measures to make sure the airport’s 60,000 employees know how to spot human traffickers and their victims, according to FOX 5.
“The same reasons we enjoy living and working and being in this area, are the same reasons that attract both the demand and supply side of human trafficking,” Special Agent Brian Johnston of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told FOX 5.
But Ung says that she thinks she was primarily questioned because she’s a smaller woman and because of her race. Her brother, Henry, wrote on Facebook that she was never entirely sure why she was singled out.
“Honestly, I think it’s just the fact that I’m Asian, [my friend] is Asian and we’re two little girls on the plane,” Ung told WXIA “... That looks like a red flag for everyone.”
Still, Ung told WXIA that she knows human trafficking is a growing problem, particularly in the Asian-American community.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the entire encounter left a lasting impression, Ung said.
“My hand still trembles when my memory flashes back to this night because this wasn't a nightmare, it was my reality,” Ung wrote on Facebook.
Delta told WXIA that its flight crews are trained to be alert for possible human trafficking victims. The airline also confirmed that the crew on Ung’s flight did contact authorities after other passengers pointed out Ung and her friend to flight attendants.
“Thousands of our flight attendants are trained to look out for signs of possible trafficking,” the airline said to WXIA in a statement. “On a recent Delta flight from Cancun, two customers were observed by another customer to not be in possession of their passports—a possible indicator of a human trafficking event.”
Ung told the TV station that she did have her passport on the flight.
“Delta took the concern seriously and contacted the appropriate authorities who addressed the customers upon landing,” Delta’s statement to WXIA went on to say. “While their investigation did show that our customers were not being trafficked, we train our crew members to remain alert and use their professional experience and practice best judgment to ensure the safety of all customers.”
Ung’s family has also spoken out about the incident on social media.
“What sort of training did you give your flight attendants to assume that two girls minding their own business were involved in human trafficking?” Henry Ung, her brother, wrote on Facebook. “Because of your baseless accusation, you have ruined my sister's birthday, her thanksgiving, and deeply effected [sic] her life.”