Metro Andela: Nigerian Software Engineer Detained At US Airport



It was not a good Sunday, February 26, for Celestine Omin, a 28-year-old Nigerian software engineer who left his left his home in Lagos for the United States for the first time on a work trip.

He was accustomed to tackling tough engineering problems. Just not the two that the Border Agent had put in front of his face — or at least not now, after having spent 24 hours cramped in an economy seat on Qatar Airways.


Celestine Omin. Photo: Twitter

Celestine, for the last six months had been working with Andela, a startup that connects the top tech talent in Africa with employers in the U.S., and backed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. For this particular role, Omin was helping NYC-based fintech startup First Access create a JavaScript application for emerging markets and had secured a short-term joint B1/B2 visa.

After landing, Omin waited for 20 minutes and then reached the front of the line, where a Customs and Border Protection officer asked him a series of questions. It was here that Omin realized that the job might be challenging, but getting into America could now be impossible. No one at Andela had prepared him for the new reality.

After a few minutes of grilling him about the job, the border agent escorted Omin into a small room and told him to sit down. Another hour passed before a different customs officer came in.

"Your visa says you are a software engineer. Is that correct?" the officer asked Omin in a tone the engineer described as accusatory. When Omin said it was right, the officer presented him with a piece of paper and a pen and told him to answer the following questions:

  • "Write a function to check if a Binary Search Tree is balanced."

  • "What is an abstract class, and why do you need it?"
To Omin — who now hadn't slept in more than 24 hours — the questions seemed opaque and could have multiple answers. While he is a skilled software engineer with more than seven years of experience, Omin later tells me that the questions looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like, "Questions to ask a software engineer."

With no context or guidelines on how to answer the questions, Omin, "too tired to even think," sat down and tried his best. But when he handed his answers back after about 10 minutes of work, the official told him his answers were wrong. "No one would tell me why I was being questioned," Omin told me by phone. "Every single time I asked [the official] why he was asking me these questions, he hushed me… I wasn't prepared for this. If I had known this was happening beforehand, I would have tried to prepare."

"That is when I thought I would never get into the United States," he told me with noticeable fear in his voice.

Omin tells me that the answers to the questions were technically correct, but he suspects the customs official interrogating him wasn't technically trained and couldn't understand his answers. More time passed, and Omin started to mentally prepare to get on a plane back to Nigeria. Then — with little explanation — the official told him he was free to go.

"He said, 'Look, I am going to let you go, but you don't look convincing to me,'" Omin said. "I didn't say anything back. I just walked out."

Omin later learned that U.S. Customs allowed him into the country after officials called Andela and First Access to corroborate his story. Jeremy Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of Andela, said that his co-founder Christina Sass was the one to receive the call to defend Omin. Just last year, Andela placed more than 100 developers from Africa as full-time software engineers with U.S. tech companies. This is the first time that any of them have ever been grilled with questions specific to software engineering or their particular trade.

As for Omin, he says the experience hasn't changed how he feels about the United States. A proud Nigerian who recently became a father, he is eager to continue to use his tech background to create growth for his country. That said, he was initially concerned about going public with his experience because he's worried he'll be added to a watch list of travelers and have trouble entering the U.S. in the future.

"I have been trying to focus here, and I haven't thought about what is going to happen when I go back to the airport," he said. "I am coming here legally with good intentions, and I hope to continue this work."

This story was originally published on LinkedIn