There’s a story making the rounds this week about Celestine Omin, a Nigerian software engineer who was asked to answer programming questions by immigration officers at JFK airport to prove that he really was qualified for the job he claimed to hold on his visa. It is awful in many ways, of course, but the part that really caught my attention was the part where he claims, “the questions looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like, ‘Questions to ask a software engineer.'” That’s a ridiculous way to check up on someone, of course, but it is also not at all hard for me to believe.
I was just asked to balance a Binary Search Tree by JFK's airport immigration. Welcome to America.
— Celestine Omin (@cyberomin) February 26, 2017
I did that trip as a quick turn, assembling a roughly 24-hour itinerary to fly Newark – Montreal – Amsterdam – Newark. I took only my messenger bag with a camera, laptop and a clean t-shirt and underwear. I breezed through the Global Entry kiosks at Newark to the Customs exit where the agent was either suspicious or confused, suggesting to me twice that I go get my bags before presenting myself. And he was none to happy when I smiled and just stood there. I handed over the Global Entry receipt and explained that I was a journalist covering an event and was only gone 24 hours so I had no bags. I made an impression, but not a good one. I was escorted to the secondary screening area at Newark’s Terminal C where I did my best to not fall asleep waiting for whatever would come next.
I was not sent into the “Green Room” which is definitely a good thing. It meant that I got to watch as the agent spent 20 minutes on his computer. Turns out he was looking for questions to ask me about the MD-11 and why its retirement was an event worth covering. And I know that 99% of the “research” performed by the agent came from Wikipedia, mostly because I had read the same exact article less than 12 hours prior and was able to recite back specific bits to him, the parts I knew he was looking for as he led the questioning.
All of which is to say that US CBP agents have been playing this game of hoping to come across as knowledgeable enough about topics to catch actual experts in lies for a long time now. I am not sure if the frequency of the incidents is increasing or if we’re just hearing about it more now or if CBP officers are all hoping to hit the “big catch” brown person these days.
I do know, however, that trying to judge someone’s knowledge on a topic by reading a wikipedia article is a pretty bad way to get ahead of them. If for no other reason than that odds are the presumed interloper probably read that same bit of information online.
Added bonus: The recent “security” efforts are costing the US tourism industry millions of dollars already with an expected impact into the billions. That’s an industry that supports millions of jobs (~9% of total employment) and 8% of the US GDP. All to try to keep a French historian, famed Australian kids’ book author, a web programmer and many others out of the country.
Also worth noting, I suppose, that Belgium almost denied me entry under similar circumstances a couple year prior to the Newark incident. Much like with Omin’s story, the agent interviewing me closed out our conversation by stating that he was unconvinced but overruled by the supervisor.
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