A House panel debated the possible terrorist connection between Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet and an Islamic extremist group Wednesday, saying that a higher level of immigration scrutiny might have prevented the July slayings of two people at Los Angeles International Airport.
The House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims called the hearing in light of an Immigration and Naturalization Service document made public Tuesday showing that officials doubted Hadayet was a peaceful man when he requested political asylum in 1992 yet allowed him to remain in the country.
"A careful examination of the immigration history of Mr. Hadayet reveals that fundamental failures in our immigration system also played a critically important part in allowing him to commit his heinous crime," Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, told subcommittee members.
On July 4, Hadayet opened fire at an El Al Airlines ticket counter, killing two people before being shot to death. Federal investigators have determined that the Orange County resident chose an Israeli target because he was outraged at that nation's policies toward Palestinians. But they said he acted alone and was not connected to any terrorist group.
Although legislators at Wednesday's hearing did not directly question that conclusion, several of them, including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) expressed shock that immigration officials reviewing Hadayet's case did not perform a more thorough background check, including asking the Egyptian government to substantiate its claims that he belonged to a terrorist group.
In a five-page letter dated May 7, 1995, the INS listed a slew of inconsistencies in Hadayet's remarks during an asylum interview.
"Each of these inconsistencies is suggestive of concealment," reads the denial of Hadayet's request. "And call into question your assertion that all you wish for the government of Egypt is that it be overthrown by peaceful means."
William Yates, INS deputy executive associate commissioner, said that at the time the INS reviewed Hadayet's application there was no evidence linking him with terrorist networks. He acknowledged, however, that neither the FBI nor the CIA were involved in conducting a criminal background check of Hadayet.
But he added: "Even today, no evidence has been located suggesting this individual, who lived peacefully in the United States for 10 years, would suddenly commit such a horrible crime."
Yates said that at the time of the request, the State Department had not yet designated certain militant groups as foreign terrorist organizations.
Such designations would have alerted them to Hadayet's alleged ties to al-Gama'a al-Islamia, an Islamic extremist group. In his asylum application, Hadayet claimed that the Egyptian government was falsely accusing him of being a terrorist as a pretext to persecute him for his religious beliefs.
Although the INS denied his request, Hadayet managed to remain in the U.S. with a temporary work permit until his wife won an INS lottery that gave the family legal residency in 1997.
Asked why the INS did not consult the Egyptian government at the time, Yates answered that doing so could have compromised the safety of Hadayet's family in Egypt. Officials later learned that his wife and children were already in the U.S.
"How do we go back without putting people at risk?" Yates said. "That's the dilemma."
Other panelists countered that in weighing the risks, officials should give more consideration to ensuring national safety.
The legislators asked the INS to produce a report for the panel by Nov. 8 estimating the number of undocumented immigrants with potential ties to foreign terrorist groups.