For years, registered nurse and midwife Anthonia Nwaorie has been traveling to Nigeria to set up “pop-up” clinics and provide basic care for communities there. But Nwaorie, a naturalized U.S. citizen, “wanted to go bigger,” and saved more than $41,000 to open a clinic that could provide full-time staff. But on her way to Nigeria last year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at George Bush Intercontinental Airport seized—i.e. stole—every single dollar Nwaorie had raised. She had been carrying the cash alongside her supplies, and says she didn’t know she was supposed to declare it:
“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.’”
But while “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 government refused to return her funds unless she agreed to not sue. “This is just about as unconstitutional as it gets,” her attorney said at the time. Nwaorie sued anyway, with the government finally returning her money last week. They’re not off the hook, though—Nwaorie plans to continue with her lawsuit.
“I’m glad to have my money back, but this isn’t over,” she said. “So many people in Nigeria have suffered needlessly because of this year-long delay in opening my clinic. I’m going to keep fighting because so many people lack the resources to fight back against injustice, and I want to make sure nobody else has to go through what I’ve been through."
As Daily Kos’ Kelly Macias wrote last year, civil asset forfeiture “disproportionately impacts black and brown people. It is a practice so heinous that even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas criticized it earlier this year.” It’s a horrifically corrupt practice, with Daily Kos’ Walter Einenkel writing that in several instances “between 2012 and 2016 the Suffolk County, New York, district attorney’s office paid out $3.25 million in bonuses—from their civil asset forfeiture seizures.”
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?’”
But it does happen, and to innocent people who look like Nwaorie. There’s no doubt that the government was also taking advantage of Nwaorie’s desperation to get her hard-earned money back by trying to force her to sign a document that would get them off the hook, but she bravely stood her ground. There needs to be a message that the government—and out-of-control agents—can’t get away with this.
“She’s still pursuing this lawsuit,” said attorney Anya Bidwell, “because she doesn’t want the same thing that happened to her to happen to hundreds or even thousands of others in her situation who are legally entitled to the return of their property but are being forced to sign a hold harmless agreement waiving their constitutional rights.”
According to KPRC, “Nwaorie plans to return to Nigeria in the fall to build a medical clinic in order to provide health care to vulnerable women and children.”