Bilirakis: Visas need scrutiny

Foreign students need a closer look, he says.

By KEVIN GRAHAM and WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writers
Published September 6, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Gus Bilirakis has asked the Department of Homeland Security for a personal briefing on the federal case against two suspended University of South Florida students indicted last week on explosives charges.

"It's a very serious issue and part of the bigger picture on terrorism," said Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.

On Wednesday, he questioned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the case during a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Ahmed Mohamed, a civil engineering graduate student and teaching assistant from Egypt, and Youssef Megahed, 21, an undergraduate engineering student, have not been charged as terrorists. A federal grand jury in Tampa indicted them Aug. 29 on charges of transporting explosives in interstate commerce without permits. The indictment also says that Mohamed taught and demonstrated how to make an explosive device.

Bilirakis, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the case highlights a need to look closer at students seeking visas.

"We want foreign students to come here and get educated if they're here for the right reason," Bilirakis said.

A USF spokesman said Mohamed, whose age has been listed as 24 or 26, cleared a homeland security background check before coming to the university and was meeting the academic requirements for his visa. Megahed is a permanent U.S. resident.

Chertoff said universities are supposed to report foreign students who don't fulfill their educational requirements, but that schools are often reluctant to do so. He said foreigners admitted on student visas also must have relatively clear criminal records, but differences in foreign justice systems can complicate this.

If students on a visa don't take the required courses, schools are supposed to call Homeland Security for possible deportation. Schools that fail to follow the rules can lose federal approval to enroll foreign students, Chertoff said. But many schools are still hesitant to do this because they don't want to be put in the position of enforcer.

"That puts a vulnerability into the system, and unfortunately we have to sanction schools," he said. "I'm not hesitant to do that."

After the committee hearing, Bilirakis wrote Chertoff, asking for a briefing on the case.

"I would hope that this briefing will allow for a more thorough and candid discussion of this matter than was possible at our hearing today," he said.

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.