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US immigration asked a Nigerian software engineer test questions

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The software engineer had a B1/B2 visa and was supposed to begin work with a New York-based start-up
The software engineer had a B1/B2 visa and was supposed to begin work with a New York-based start-up

A first-time trip to the United States usually lives long in the visitor’s memory. That will certainly be true for Celestine Omin, but for all the wrong reasons.

On Feb. 26, after landing in New York’s JFK airport after a long flight from Nigeria (via Qatar), Omin, a 28-year old software engineer, prepared for what he thought was going to be a routine customs entry interview. Omin is an engineer with Andela, a tech startup based in Nigeria and Kenya, which trains and deploys software engineers to firms across the world.

It counts Facebook first couple Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan amongst its backers. He was in New York to develop software for First Access, a New York-based fintech startup.

But according to Omin, a customs agent doubted his claim that he was a software engineer, and told him he was required to answer test questions to prove his profession. Detained in a room for hours at the JFK, Omin was asked to “write a function to check if a Binary Search Tree is balanced” and was also asked about “an abstract class” and why an engineer might “need it”—questions he felt came straight from a Google search of “questions to ask a software engineer,” he told Caroline Fairchild, an editor at LinkedIn.

Omin was eventually let go, but not before calls were made to both Andela and First Access to corroborate his claims. The engineer says that throughout the ordeal, he had no idea why he was being held since he had a valid short-term work visa. “No one would tell me why I was being questioned,” he told LinkedIn. “Every single time I asked [the official] why he was asking me these questions, he hushed me. I thought I would never get into the United States.”

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

Joe Chagan, applications developer at Quartz, says the questions Omin was asked are not a fair assessment of an engineer’s abilities. “If the person knows both of these they are almost definitely an engineer. But I don’t think not knowing these in anyway rules them out as being an engineer.”

Micah Ernst, Quartz’s director of product engineering, shares similar sentiments. “There are so many different languages that it would be hard to find one engineer that understood them all well enough to know whether the answers were correct or not.” Chagan and Ernst were both uncertain of being able to answer both questions.

Omin’s experience, on the back of US president Donald Trump’s recent attempted travel ban, is part of increasingly aggressive security procedures at US airports. The travel ban, now suspended for now by US courts, initially targeted Muslim-majority countries, including Libya, Sudan and Somalia. Incidents like the one involving Omin have contributed to falling interest in visiting the US.

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