Anthonia Nwaorie is a registered nurse from Katy, Texas who had $41,377 seized from her by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in October 2017. But even after finding no criminal activity associated with her actions, CBP refuses to return the funds unless she signs a "hold-harmless" agreement and forfeits her right to sue the federal government.
The majority of the cash was intended for opening a medical clinic in Nigeria, and Nwaorie saved for years to accumulate the funds. She had separated the funds into labeled envelopes, with some also earmarked for relatives from her native country who were ill or aging.
When Nwaorie was preparing to board her flight at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, CBP agents approached her for questioning. She never made it to her plane. They pulled her into a separate room to conduct a search of her and her belongings, and seized all of the funds she had with her.
During the questioning, Nwaorie said, "It was like I was a criminal. 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.'"
But Nwaorie wasn't charged with any crime. Her only misstep was failing to declare the funds prior to departure, which is not a violation of the law (and was also an unknown policy to Ms. Nwaorie.) Her attorneys say the failure of declaration was a technicality which is not easy to comply with or well-publicized.
She is now being represented by the Institute for Justice, who has filed a class-action lawsuit on her behalf. One of the attorneys representing her, Dan Alban, said, "We're representing hundreds or thousands of people all over the country who have had this sort of thing happen to them. They were entitled to get their property back...and instead, CBP sent them this letter demanding that they waive all rights to sue and hold [the government] harmless, and if they violate the agreement, pay all the attorney's fees. And that's just egregious."
The Institute for Justice is taking legal action in hopes that the courts will recognize that seizing such property and only returning it in exchange for signing an agreement is unconstitutional. Most people can't afford the legal fees to take on the federal government in regaining their property.
In the meantime, Nwaorie, who has been a U.S. citizen since 1994, is waiting on the return of her funds and is hesitant to try again in building the clinic in Nigeria. She said, "This is a horrible nightmare which I would not wish on anybody at all. This is the money that I have worked hard to earn. I have the right to do whatever I please with it. So for someone to stop me and treat me like a common criminal for my money that I have paid taxes on already...it's not right."