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Border agents at JFK give engineer a written test, he says

Commentary: A Nigerian software engineer coming to work at a US tech startup says he was subjected to the test to prove his ID and purpose of travel, according to a report and his tweets.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Want to take an engineering test?

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When I became an American citizen, I found US Customs and Border Protection would unfailingly lift my spirits.

On my arrival back in the US, they would always say: "Welcome home, sir." I'd never had that in the UK.

Now, though, border tensions have increased -- some would say because of undue paranoia seeping down from government.

So when Celestine Omin, a Nigerian software engineer, arrived in the US on Sunday, he didn't quite get a simple welcome.

As LinkedIn reported, Omin arrived at JFK to take up a short-term position at a financial tech startup called First Access. He reportedly is tasked with creating a JavaScript application for emerging markets.

Omin, who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment and confirmation on his story, is employed by Andela, a company that connects African tech talent with US companies, LinkedIn said.

Omin told LinkedIn that after a few questions, he was taken by agents to a small room. Having waited there an hour -- Omin was tired after a 24-hour journey -- he reportedly said that a customs officer came in and his tone was less than welcoming.

After he confirmed that he was a software engineer, he was given a pen and paper and told to answer two questions: "Write a function to check if a Binary Search Tree is balanced," and "What is an abstract class, and why do you need it?"

Omin told LinkedIn that these questions -- which could be answered in many ways -- were like someone with no technical background Googling "Questions to ask a software engineer."

"Every single time I asked [the official] why he was asking me these questions, he hushed me," Omin told LinkedIn. "I wasn't prepared for this. If I had known this was happening beforehand, I would have tried to prepare."

Omin said he feared his answers were right, but that the agents weren't technically savvy enough to know that.

And then suddenly another agent walked in. Omin told LinkedIn: "He said, 'Look, I am going to let you go, but you don't look convincing to me."

Which of us is convincing after 24 hours without sleep? Omin said he believes that calls were made to Andela. His employer confirmed that he was who he said he was.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman told me he couldn't discuss any individual case, due to privacy laws, but said that "US Customs and Border Protection officers strive to treat all people arriving in the country with dignity and respect."

"CBP does not administer written tests to verify a traveler's purpose of travel," the spokesman insisted.

So why would Omin have been singled out?

"It is not uncommon for CBP officers to encounter individuals traveling to the United States with fraudulent documents or with a document that is not for their actual purpose of travel. CBP officers are highly trained to identify such cases and will use various law enforcement techniques, such as questioning, to help aid in decision-making and admissibility," the CBP spokesman explained.

The burden of proof, the spokesman told me, is on the entrant. "The applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility," he said.

The skeptical will wonder why Omin might have been detained. Nigeria isn't one of the countries singled out for special vigilance by President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Omin seems sanguine. He became a little famous there after tweeting about his Binary Search Tree test. He insists he now needs a blue verified tick from Twitter.

Well, it could come in useful if he tries to enter the US again.

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