NEW YORK: Seventeen students from Egypt arrived at New York s Kennedy airport in late July for what was supposed to be an exciting month in America. Their destination was a Montana university where they were to learn about U.S. history and culture while improving their English.
But things didn t go as planned.
Eleven of the Egyptians never made it to Montana and instead fanned out across the country, meeting up with family and friends and sightseeing, all while triggering a national manhunt. Within a couple of weeks, they were all in custody and accused of violating their visas by not showing up to school.
Instead of sitting in classrooms, the students spent weeks in detention centers learning a lesson in post-Sept. 11 immigration law. The few with lawyers said their situations and intent were misunderstood, and that the U.S. government was being too hard on them. Some fear persecution if sent back to Egypt.
They are considered pariahs, said Amy Peck, an Omaha lawyer who represents three of the students. This case has been headlined in Cairo.
The snippets that have emerged about the case – from lawyers and four students pleas to the courts – provide a glimpse of the tough regulations that govern foreign students in the United States and the serious naiveté about U.S. immigration law among many seeking to come here. It also did not help that the students disappeared right around the time authorities announced a foiled plot to attack U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives.
The students – ages 18 to 22 and enrolled in Egypt s Mansoura University – are not deemed terror threats. All have been ordered deported, and three recently were sent back to Egypt. Most didn t have lawyers. The ones with lawyers offer stories that don t always match up.
Eslam Ibrahim El-Dessouki says he fell victim to airport confusion. Extra security checks caused him to miss his connecting flight, and he couldn t find the other students, according to his statement to a court. Confused, he called an uncle who lived in Minnesota, who suggested he go there so relatives could help. El-Dessouki jumped on a bus and headed to the Midwest.
Mohamed Ibrahim El Sayed El Moghazy, 20; Ahmed Refaat Saad El Moghazi El Laket, 19; and Moustafa Wagdy Moustafa El Gafary, 18, also scattered after arriving in New York. They told Peck, who is their lawyer, that once they all landed at the airport, three of the students turned to the rest, bid farewell and took off. That panicked the rest of the group, the three said, because all had been told that if any one of them didn t show up at Montana State University, the rest would lose their passports and immediately get sent back to Egypt.
They say that El-Dessouki was one of the three students who took off – a claim El-Dessouki denies.
Peck said her clients took a bus to San Francisco, then to Des Moines, in search of family and friends who they thought could help them. They also did some sightseeing.But the whole idea was to keep their passports, and, in a way, keep control of the situation, she said.
In San Francisco, friends told them to leave, that they were in trouble. But they still didn t understand how dire the situation was, Peck said. So then they went to Des Moines. There, a friend of one of their mothers explained to them the furor they had caused. They decided to turn themselves in, she said.
It was stupid, it was misinformed, and they feel really bad now, Peck said. But they aren t these bad terrorists, break-the-law people. Two of the students were found in Manville, New Jersey.
Two were found in Dundalk, Maryland. One was arrested at Chicago s O Hare International Airport as he was trying to book a flight to Montana, while two others were found in Richmond, Virginia. Some turned themselves in after learning they were wanted.
El-Dessouki made it to Minnesota, and one of his uncles contacted the FBI after the family learned the student was wanted. He was the first one of the group arrested. His lawyer, Herbert Igbanugo, argues that his client never meant to violate any laws.Igbanugo and Peck complained that the government would not allow their clients to leave under the voluntary departure program – even immediately after being released – and instead pushed for deportation, which could bar the students from returning to the U.S. for a decade.
The lawyers said their students were guilty of being naive and misled, and that deportation was too harsh.
Government officials, meanwhile, say the students brought everything on themselves, and that they have lied. In court documents, the government claimed El-Dessouki even obtained an identification card and a job in Minnesota, clearly signaling he wanted to stay.
These individuals came here apparently knowing full well that they did not intend to go to the school, even though they claimed they were, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Obviously the honor system doesn t mean much to this group. According to ICE, there were about 766,000 people registered as of the end of 2005 in the database that tracks foreign students and exchange visitors, part of a monitoring system strengthened after Sept. 11.
Immigration authorities reviewed over 85,000 potential visa violations last year, referred more about 2,300 to the field for additional investigation and ultimately arrested 592 people.
Advocates for foreign students say the Egyptian case is unusual mainly because of the publicity and the number of students involved.
Of all of the tens of millions of foreigners who come into this country, this tiny little group of people we call foreign students are the only ones that are monitored, so we knew they didn t show up, said Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. All those other people, we never have any way of knowing where they are.
If anything, the case also shows how little understood U.S. immigration laws remain in other parts of the world, despite tougher restrictions after the terrorist attacks.
Johnson said people don t always read the fine print, especially if they re teenagers.Meanwhile, the six students who attended the month-long program at Montana State University in Bozeman finished and returned to Egypt. Officials there said it appeared the students had a good time, despite the initial frenzy.