Anthonia Nwaorie was on her way to open a medical clinic in Imo State, her place of birth in Nigeria when U.S. customs seized the entire $41,377 she was carrying.
The 59-year-old registered nurse moved to America in 1982 and became a U.S. citizen in 1994. She travels to Nigeria every year since 2014 to provide free basic medical care to people in her hometown.
Not knowing about the U.S federal law that requires travelers to file a report when leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash, Nwaorie had a little over $37,000 in her carry-on bag and $4,000 in her purse. The money was stowed in separate envelopes, some earmarked to help the sick or aging family members. In addition to the cash, her checked luggage contained medical supplies and over-the-counter medication, which she said were for free basic care and checkups to anyone who needed it. All together, U.S. customs seized all $41,377 from her.
“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. They promised to give it back in April if she gives up her right to sue the federal government. Her attorney says this violates Nwaorie’s basic First Amendment rights to petition the government for grievances. Nwaorie didn’t sign to give up that right, she decided to sue instead.
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. Her infraction was failing to declare the money to Customs before traveling. 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 cash they must fill out a declaration, a rule she said she did not know existed.
Each time she goes to Nigeria, she would set up a pop-up medical clinic in churches or community centers, where she provided basic care and over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen and Tylenol for basic ailments. Trained as a midwife, she also examined pregnant women and lets them hear their babies’ heartbeats for the first time.
She later decided to build a small clinic, so that patients would have regular access to care with full-time doctors. Her father helped secure her a parcel of land.
“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.
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.