NEW YORK – Seventeen students from Egypt arrived in the U.S. in July, bound for a college in Montana where they were to learn about American history and culture.
But 11 of the students instead fanned out across the country to visit friends and family and go sightseeing, triggering a nationwide manhunt. The government tracked down the students and locked them in detention centers, teaching them a tough lesson about the regulations governing foreign students since Sept. 11, 2001.
The students — ages 18 to 22 — have been deemed not to be terror threats. All were ordered deported, and three recently were sent back to Egypt.
Lawyers for some of the students say they were misunderstood and that the U.S. government has been too hard on them. Some students say they fear persecution if sent back to Egypt.
"They are considered pariahs," said Amy Peck, an Omaha, Neb., lawyer who represents three of the students. "This case has been headlined in Cairo."
The students disappeared right around the time authorities announced a foiled plot to attack U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives.
One of the students, 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, he said in a court statement.
He called an uncle who lived in Minnesota, who suggested he go there so relatives could help, he said. 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, their lawyer, that once they landed at the airport, three other students turned to the rest, bid farewell and took off.
That panicked the remaining members 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 said 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, Iowa, in search of family and friends who they thought could help them. They also did some sightseeing.
In San Francisco, friends told them to leave — that they were in trouble. But they didn't understand how dire the situation was and went to Des Moines, Peck said. There, a friend of one of their mothers explained to them the furor they had caused. They turned themselves in, Peck said said.
"It was stupid, it was misinformed, and they feel really bad now," she said. "But they aren't these bad terrorists, break-the-law people."
Two other students were found in Manville, N.J. Two were found in Dundalk, Md. 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, Va. 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 he 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 voluntarily and instead pushed for deportation, which could bar the students from returning to the U.S. for a decade.
Government officials said the students brought their troubles on themselves. 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."
The agency said there were about 766,000 people registered as of the end of 2005 in the database that tracks foreign students and exchange visitors, a system strengthened after Sept. 11.
Immigration authorities reviewed more than 85,000 potential visa violations last year, referring about 2,300 to the field for additional investigation. Ultimately, 592 people were arrested.
The six students who attended the monthlong program at Montana State finished and returned to Egypt. Officials there said it appeared the students had a good time, despite the frenzy involving the other students.