Border Patrol Refuses to Return $41,000 Seized From Texas Nurse Who Saved Money to Open Medical Clinic

Texas nurse Anthonia Nwaorie is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the agency seized the $41,377 she had been planning to use to open up a medical clinic in southern Nigeria. Institute for Justice

Updated | A decade-long dream to open a medical clinic in southern Nigeria was just one flight away from coming true for Anthonia Nwaorie. But the Texas nurse saw her plan cut short when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials told her they would seize every penny of the more than $41,000 she had saved to make it happen.

Nwaorie, a 59-year-old grandmother, was on her way from Houston to her hometown in southern Nigeria in October 2017 when she was stopped by a CBP officer.

"The officer started asking me questions: 'How much money do you have? How long have you been in the United States?'" she told the Texas Tribune. "I felt like a criminal that had just run the red light."

Nwaorie immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 and is a citizen; she told the officer she was carrying the $41,377 she had spent years saving up to open her clinic.

The only problem? She hadn't gone out of her way to declare that she was leaving the country with more than $10,000—a technical requirement Nwaorie said she was never aware of.

As a result, CBP officials seized Nwaorie's money. Now she said the U.S. government is refusing to return it unless she signs a so-called "hold harmless" agreement promising she will not sue CBP over the incident and will reimburse the government for costs it has incurred while enforcing the agreement. If she refuses to sign, Nwaorie said the agency has said it will claim that she "abandoned" her money and keep it without giving her a hearing.

Instead, Nwaorie has decided to take CBP to court, teaming up with the Institute for Justice to file a federal class action lawsuit targeting "the abusive practice of civil forfeiture," the IJ has said.

The lawsuit points out that Nwaorie was never charged with any crime and yet, the U.S. attorney's office declined to pursue civil forfeiture of her money and allowed the 90-day deadline to file a forfeiture complaint to pass without any action.

The lawsuit argues that CBP's practice of demanding "hold harmless" agreements in exchange for the return of property is unlawful and demands that CBP be forced to return seized property to any class members, including Nwaorie, whose property has not been returned because they have refused to sign such an agreement.

"People shouldn't have their property put in limbo like this," Dan Alban, an attorney with IJ, told Newsweek. "It is perfectly legal to travel with $10,000. She lawfully earned this money from her income as a nurse. She had plans to open this clinic in Nigeria."

Alban said Nwaorie's money was seized due to "a series of accusations from people who had already made up their mind that she was a criminal."

The attorney said he believes there could be hundreds or even thousands of people who had their money held until they agree to sign a "hold harmless agreement."

It's a pretty common occurrence," Alban said, adding: "It's a pretty serious threat, and it's one that nobody should have to face."

The IJ said the class action lawsuit will "represent Anthonia and other innocent victims of CBP's unlawful and unconstitutional requirement that people sign away their rights to get back property the agency is legally required to return."

IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell said the case should show "how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive."

"Anthonia was never charged with a crime, and the government decided not to forfeit her money. But all these months later, she's still suffering from a seizure the government acknowledges should never have happened," Bidwell said in a statement shared by the IJ, adding, "Even when the civil forfeiture process supposedly 'works' as designed, it has disastrous effects on innocent people."

Nwaorie has said she refuses to "sign away my rights" to get her money back and will wait to see how the legal battle plays out in court.

"The government took my money for no good reason and kept me from building a medical clinic that can provide healthcare to vulnerable women and children," Nwaorie said in a statement shared by the IJ.

"Now they're demanding that I sign away my rights to get back what has rightly belonged to me all along. I am an American, and I will not surrender my rights," she said.

A spokesperson from CBP said the agency could not comment on this story due to pending litigation.

This story has been updated with comments from Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban.