AN EGYPTIAN STUDENT in California has been detained by immigration authorities and is facing deportation after he posted a hostile comment on Facebook against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In early February, Emad Elsayed posted a photo of Trump on Facebook and wrote a post to the effect of, “If I killed this guy I wouldn’t mind serving a life sentence and the world would thank me,” according to his attorney, Hani Bushra, who saw the post in a court hearing yesterday, when it was introduced into evidence by government lawyers.
Elsayed traveled from Cairo to the United States on a student visa in mid-September to attend flight-training school at Universal Air Academy in Los Angeles, according to his sister, Ohoud, who lives in Egypt. Photos on the 23-year-old’s Facebook page show him variously in a cockpit or smiling in sunglasses in front of the Hollywood sign.
Elsayed’s threatening post, and subsequent detention, come amid a divisive election campaign, with Trump engaging in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric, including calling for a ban on Muslims from entering the United States, fondly repeating a myth about a U.S. general executing Muslim prisoners in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, refusing to rule out creating a database of American Muslims, and falsely claiming that Arabs in New Jersey were cheering as the World Trade Center came down on 9/11.
According to a document filed by the government for an immigration hearing yesterday, it was the owner of the flight school, Alex Khatib, who tipped off the FBI about the post on February 3. The FBI then forwarded the information to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the State Department, and the Secret Service.
According to Bushra, on February 4 — two or three days after Elsayed posted on Facebook — two Secret Service agents came to the flight school and questioned Elsayed for two hours, asking about his background and whether he was associated with any terror groups. After they left, Elsayed deleted the post. The document filed by the government confirms that “Secret Service agents interviewed Elsayed regarding the threat.”
Khatib, the owner of Universal Air Academy, was also contacted by the same Secret Service agents, according to a statement by Khatib that was submitted to the court. Both Khatib and the Secret Service declined to comment when contacted by The Intercept.
On February 5, the agents came to Elsayed’s home and searched through his belongings, his car, and his laptop, Bushra said. Nearly a week later, on February 11, the agents visited Khatib at the flight school. “They told me that the State Department revoked Mr. Elsayed’s M-1 visa and that it was better for Mr. Elsayed to leave the country,” Khatib wrote in his signed statement. The M-1 visa is a type of student visa reserved for vocational schools. “They told me that there were no criminal charges to be filed against Mr. Elsayed, and that the only thing that is left is to terminate his I-20. Based on their information and their suggestion, I terminated the I-20 of Mr. Elsayed.”
The I-20 is issued by schools certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When Elsayed’s I-20 was terminated by Universal Air Academy, he lost his student visa status.
The next day, according to Khatib’s statement, he contacted Elsayed at the behest of the Secret Service agents and asked him to come to the school. When Elsayed arrived, immigration officials accompanying the Secret Service agents promptly arrested him.
“Mr. Elsayed was taken into custody Feb. 12 by officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) for allegedly violating the terms of his admission to the United States,” said Virginia Kice, an ICE spokesperson, in an emailed statement. “ICE placed Mr. Elsayed in removal proceedings and it will now be up to immigration courts … to determine whether he has a legal basis to remain in the U.S.”
Bushra, who specializes in immigration cases, argues that the government’s successful effort to revoke Elsayed’s student visa is akin to “thuggery.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “Immigration has been used as a way to punish him and get him out of the country after the U.S. attorney’s office — which is the highest judicial arm of the executive branch — declined to prosecute this case and bring it to court.”
At the hearing, the immigration judge found that Elsayed should be removed from the country unless he manages to get a reinstatement of his student visa status, according to Bushra. Khatib, the school owner, claimed in his statement that he would be willing to issue Elsayed a new I-20 to allow him to complete his course at the school. However, the process of getting a reinstatement could take up to five months and most of that time would likely be spent in detention. At the hearing, the judge denied bond after the government introduced into evidence the now-deleted Facebook post and argued that Elsayed is a danger to the community, Bushra said.
The next court session is scheduled for March 4, when Bushra will try to work out a deal to have Elsayed released in exchange for letting him get his affairs in order and leave the country. “He is devastated,” Bushra said. “He feels it is unfair and that he is not taken at his word that he didn’t mean any of this. He doesn’t understand why this is happening.”