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The Nation

Ashcroft Orders Review of Asylum Cases

Security: Attorney general wants to identify immigrants who may have terrorist links.

September 26, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has ordered the INS to launch a "prompt review" of potentially tens of thousands of political asylum cases to identify any immigrants who have acknowledged being accused of links to terrorism abroad.

The directive stems from Ashcroft's concerns that INS officials years ago overlooked the possibility the Egyptian immigrant responsible for the July 4 rampage at Los Angeles International Airport may have been connected to a terrorist organization before he arrived in the U.S.

Although investigators from the FBI and other federal agencies have found no links between Hesham Mohamed Hadayet and terrorist groups, the Orange County resident acknowledged in an unsuccessful bid for asylum that Egyptian officials had accused him of belonging to Gama'a al-Islamiyya, also known as the Islamic Group. The organization was subsequently labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.

Hadayet told the INS in 1993 that he had signed a statement in Egypt admitting membership in the group but insisted it was a false admission made under duress. Federal records show Hadayet told an INS officer that in Egypt he had been beaten, immersed in water for 14 hours and forced to admit falsely that he was trying to overthrow the government.

Hadayet's bid for asylum was rejected by the INS, although he managed to remain in the U.S. with a temporary work permit while the case dragged on. The asylum case became moot when his wife won an INS lottery that gave the family legal residency in 1997.

On July 4, Hadayet, a limousine driver whose business was struggling, went to the El Al Airlines ticket counter and gunned down two people before he was shot and killed by a security guard.

In a memo sent last week to INS Commissioner James Ziglar, Ashcroft expressed irritation with the handling of the Hadayet case.

"I direct you to undertake a prompt review of existing asylum files to ascertain whether other individuals may be present in the United States who have admitted that they have been accused of terrorist activity or terrorist associations," Ashcroft wrote.

INS officials have defended their handling of the Hadayet case, while conceding that the Egyptian immigrant--like tens of thousands of asylum applicants in the early and mid-1990s--probably scammed the political asylum system to drag out his time in the U.S.

Then, the system was overwhelmed with new applicants--many of them with no legitimate asylum claim who were seeking a way to remain here and work. The process ground to a virtual halt until reforms in Washington cut down on the frivolous applications.

How sweeping an inquiry the attorney general is seeking remains to be seen. In the fiscal year that ended last October, the nation's immigration courts received about 60,500 asylum applications. Reviewing all the INS' voluminous asylum files could involve hundreds of thousands of applications--most of them still in paper format and not computerized--when the agency is behind on many of its principal tasks.

"We'll have to discuss this with the Department of Justice to see how we'll proceed," said one INS official. "Yes, we'll do whatever we have to do, but it's got to be realistic."

At a news media briefing Wednesday, Ashcroft said his concern about the asylum applications sprang from the Hadayet case.

"I recently learned of a series of disturbing INS actions that were connected to a particular subject from the West Coast in the 1990s, a subject that was involved in ... the LAX shootings," Ashcroft said.

"And I want to know whether there are procedures or practices, which would expose Americans to a kind of vulnerability to jeopardize the safety of Americans that's part of the system."

While the inquiry would encompass many other asylum cases, it remains uncertain how any INS action could have resulted in Hadayet having been immediately deported for any links to the terrorist group.

Beyond Hadayet's denial, according to those familiar with the case, it would have been difficult for authorities to connect him to a terrorist group, because his initial application was filed at least five years before the U.S. State Department began designating certain militant groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Additionally, INS officials say that because of the backlogs plaguing the system, it is specious to suggest Hadayet could have been deported sooner if authorities had promptly acted on his purported ties to a terrorist group.

Moreover, an extensive investigation of the July 4 shooting spree has yet to uncover any connections between Hadayet and Islamic extremists.

Los Angeles FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin said Wednesday: "We still have not confirmed any link between the LAX shooter and any known terrorist groups."

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