Anthonia Nwaorie spent years saving up thousands of dollars to open a medical clinic in Nigeria, where she was born. Finally, last October, she walked down a jet bridge at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to board the plane to get there.
The 59-year-old registered nurse had more than $37,000 in her carry-on bag and $4,000 in her purse. It was all cash, stowed in separate envelopes, some of it earmarked to help ill or aging family members. In her checked luggage she packed medical supplies and over-the-counter medication, which she planned to use to provide free basic care and checkups to anyone who needed it.
But she wouldn’t make it there. Just as she was about to board the flight to Nigeria, agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped her.
“How many people are you carrying money for?” an agent asked her, she recalled in an interview with The Washington Post. “How many people are you traveling with?”
Before Nwaorie could even open her mouth, she said, the agent asked another question: “How long have you been in the United States?”
The questioning threw her off guard. She explained she had legally earned the money and she was alone. Nwaorie, who lives in Katy, Tex., became a U.S. citizen in 1994. She showed her passport, thinking perhaps they were questioning her legal status. The agents took her to a room to search her and her luggage anyway.
Then they seized all $41,377 dollars.
“It was like I was a criminal,” she said. “I felt so humiliated, so petrified, too. They were talking among themselves, saying how this is how people smuggle money out of the country. ‘This is how they do it.’”
More than six months later, Customs and Border Protection still has not given back her money.
This, despite the fact that the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of Texas did not bring a civil asset forfeiture case against her or charge her with any crime. The infraction she committed was failing to declare the money to Customs before traveling. According to the agency’s website, “there is no limit on the amount of money that can be taken out” of the country, but if a traveler is carrying more than $10,000 in currency they must fill out a declaration, a rule she said she did not know existed.
The agency told her in April it would give back her money under one condition: that she give up her right to sue the federal government. It’s called a “hold-harmless agreement.” The condition, her attorney says, violates Nwaorie’s basic First Amendment rights to petition the government for grievances.
Nwaorie didn’t sign it, deciding to sue instead.
“This is just about as unconstitutional as it gets,” said Nwaorie’s attorney, Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, which specializes in civil asset forfeiture. “They’re requiring her to trade her right to the property in exchange for giving up these other rights: Does she want her right to the property? Or does she want to give up her right to the First Amendment? They’re sending these agreements out to not just to Anthonia but, we think, hundreds or thousands of people every year.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation, and would not answer general questions about CBP’s hold-harmless agreement policy.
CBP seizes property from people more than 120,000 times per year, according to the federal lawsuit, filed last week in a federal court in Houston. To get the property back, individuals have two options. They can argue for their property using CBP’s administrative process, in which case Alban said a hold-harmless agreement wouldn’t be unusual. Or they can go the route Nwaorie chose, leaving it to federal prosecutors to decide whether to pursue civil asset forfeiture within 90 days.
According to documents provided to The Post, prosecutors declined to pursue a case against Nwaorie. The lawsuit states that under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, the government should have been required to “promptly release” Nwaorie’s $41,000 to her, no questions asked. Alban contends that forcing a person to agree not to sue the government — and to pay the government’s legal fees if CBP has to enforce the agreement in court — is an “unconstitutional condition.”
Alban said discovering how often this happens to people in the United States will be part of the lawsuit, as the data is not immediately available. The suit seeks class-action status to cover every person who has signed a hold-harmless agreement with CBP despite being freely entitled to their property under federal law. It seeks to void all of those agreements.
“This case highlights the abusiveness of civil asset forfeitures in general,” Alban said. “It’s just crazy: She’s not been charged with a crime. The entire situation was so weak and not worth pursuing that the U.S. attorney decided not to even try to forfeit her money. She’s been deprived of that money. She’s been unable to open her clinic. She’s been living a nightmare. This has really disrupted her life.”
Nwaorie has been traveling to Nigeria to provide free basic medical care to people in her home town, in the state of Imo, on an annual basis since 2014. She sets up a pop-up medical clinic in churches or community centers, where she provides basic care and over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen and Tylenol for basic ailments. Trained as a midwife, she also examines all the pregnant women and lets them hear their babies’ heartbeats for the first time.
But after a while Nwaorie said she wanted to go bigger. She wanted the patients to have regular access to care with full-time doctors at a small, permanent clinic. This year, she said her father helped secure her a parcel of land. Before she was stopped by CBP, she intended to get a permit from the local government in Nigeria and begin purchasing materials for construction.
“This was my dream, that people cannot be sent away from a clinic or a hospital because they do not have money,” she said. “This is something that I want to do for humanity, myself and my God, so there is nothing I would want to do to go against the law of this land to get it done. If I had known I had to declare the money before traveling, I would have done that.”
Nwaorie ultimately traveled to Nigeria the month after CBP seized her money, paying for her trip on a credit card and setting up another week-long pop-up clinic. And she had to tell some family members that she didn’t have the money set aside for them.
She explained to her brother what happened. “He was surprised,” Nwaorie said. “He said, ‘What? Does that happen in America?’”