Latest dispatches from the War On Foreign People And Maybe Terrorism: Celestine Omin, a Nigerian software engineer on his way to meet with an American client in New York, was detained by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers who wanted to make sure he was really a software engineer, so they asked him some questions about his work that sounded suspiciously like the kinds of questions you might get if you Googled “Questions to ask a software engineer.” Omin was eventually allowed past the Customs checkpoint after the CBP agents at JFK International had the bright idea of phoning his employers, after which he tweeted this trenchant observation:
Omin was taken to a small room and told to wait, which he did for about an hour, and then a different CBP 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?”
Omin told LinkedIn editor Caroline Fairchild that the questions didn’t make a lot of sense to him, especially after not having slept for a full day and being jet lagged. They could have multiple answers, and struck him as the kind of thing you might find on a search engine if you knew nothing about computers but wanted some examples of questions a software engineer might deal with. Exhausted and “too tired to even think,” he did his best for about ten minutes, then handed the paper to the CBP guy, who told him the 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 is pretty sure his answers, if read by another software engineer, were just fine, but they probably didn’t match up with whatever the CBP guys had Googled, and were therefore “wrong.” He said he suspected the officers had no technical training and wouldn’t know a right answer from a wrong answer. We guess they figured you could find an easy shibboleth for real software engineers, just like the Americans in old movies who asked baseball trivia questions to ferret out Nazi spies, then shot the one guy in the platoon who didn’t follow sports.
Just as he was mentally preparing himself to be deported back to Nigeria, the CBP guy 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 found out that the CBP officers had hit on a better idea than random Googling, and had called Andela, where they spoke to one of the firm’s co-founders, Christina Sass. She verified that yes, Celestine Omin worked for Andela, and why do you ask? Jeremy Johnson, the other co-founder of Andela, told Fairchild this was the first time any of the over 100 African software developers they’ve worked with has had any trouble entering the U.S. Hey, welcome to the New Cruelty!
“Celestine was the first software engineer at one of the most visible e-commerce sites in Africa and is exactly the kind of person we want coming to America and sharing his skills,” said Johnson, who was named to LinkedIn’s Next Wave last year. “Tapping into brilliant minds like Celestine’s is a huge help to many American companies who are struggling to find talent.”
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Translation: If you’re a foreigner with technical expertise traveling to the USA, make damn sure you have more than just a visa in good order. Try to ensure someone here is available to vouch for you; it may help if your U.S. contact is white, rich, and/or has some social standing. Mr. Omin, at least, is glad to know the Internet has his back:
Still, if you need to come to the USA, make sure before you leave to Google your own field, so you can explain your work in words CBP agents have looked up online.