Software Engineer Barred From Entry, Forced To Take Test By US Customs

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“I was just asked to balance a Binary Search Tree by JFK's airport immigration. Welcome to America.”

 

Things have now gone past the realm of ridiculousness.

Celestine Omin, a 28-year-old software engineer traveling from Nigeria to the United States, was halted at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and asked a series of engineering questions, before he was allowed entry into the country.

Omin works for Andela, a tech startup that connects African talent to the United States and is supported by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The engineer had secured a short term visa for U.S. but little did he know he would be met with this unexpected impediment.

 

The border agent grilled Omin about his job, then led him into a small room where he waited for an hour. Another officer then came in and provided him with a piece of paper and a pen and told him to balance a Binary Search Tree and explain an “abstract class.”

The engineer who had been traveling without sleep for over 24 hours tried his best to answer the questions, but it was apparent to him from the start that the questions were picked by a person who has no technical background.

When he returned the paper, Omin was told his answers were wrong even though they were technically correct.

 

During the time he was told to wait further, the engineer thought he would be sent back to Nigeria. However, after a while, without giving him any excuse for their behavior, the U.S. Customs allowed him 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.”

He later learned the customs officer had called Andela to verify if he was with them. Jeremy Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of the company said his co-founder Christina Sass was the one to defend Omin.

The engineer was concerned about making his incident public as he says he may be added to a watch list and banned entry into the country 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.”

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