SANTA ANA, Calif. - An Orange County man surrendered to federal authorities Monday morning after being charged with conspiracy for allegedly orchestrating a visa fraud scheme involving dozens of foreign students enrolled at institutions throughout Southern California, including several junior colleges and three California State University campuses.
Foreign students from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey, and Qatar allegedly paid thousands of dollars to the defendant and his associates to take college classes, exams and placement tests on their behalf so they could maintain their lawful immigration status as foreign students.
Eamonn Daniel Higgins, 46, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., appeared in U.S. District Court to answer to a criminal information accusing him of one count of conspiring to commit visa fraud. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Higgins' trial is slated to begin May 4.
Monday morning as Higgins made his initial court appearance, ICE agents fanned out across Orange and Los Angeles counties, arresting 16 of the foreign students linked to the investigation. Of those, six were taken into custody on criminal charges for committing visa fraud. The remaining 10 individuals were arrested on administrative immigration violations and will be placed in removal proceedings. In addition, ICE agents encountered six other foreign students with ties to the case who were instructed to come in for further questioning.
Monday's enforcement actions are the result of an eight-month investigation spearheaded by ICE, with substantial assistance provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Los Angeles Police Department. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.
"Visa fraud poses a significant security vulnerability and undermines the integrity of our nation's legal immigration system," said Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary John Morton who oversees ICE. "As this case shows, we will move aggressively to identify and prosecute those who engage in fraud and corrupt the immigration process for profit."
According to the charging document unsealed today, Higgins received up to $1,500 to complete final examinations and other classroom work for foreign students, and $1,000 for taking required English proficiency tests. Higgins allegedly recruited associates to take exams as well.
The court document states that Higgins used personal identifying information provided by the foreign students to obtain counterfeit California driver's licenses. Then the defendant and his associates, posing as the foreign students, allegedly took the tests and examinations and attended the classes on the students' behalf. According to the court document, the conspiracy is believed to have begun in January 2002 and continued through mid-December of 2009.
In December 2009, ICE agents executed a federal search warrant at Higgins' residence in Laguna Niguel. There, agents seized a computer, along with dozens of fraudulent California identification documents and numerous college exam documents. A forensic analysis of the computer and related evidence revealed more than 100 foreign students who may have participated in the fraud scheme. Of those, ICE determined 47 are still in the United States.
"This case is yet another example of the community and every level of law enforcement working together to hold criminals accountable," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
ICE officials emphasize the case is ongoing and agents are continuing to pursue leads. The investigation is being coordinated by the Los Angeles ICE Office of Investigation's recently expanded Compliance Enforcement Unit (CEU), which focuses on identifying and investigating foreign students and other non-immigrant visitors to the United States who violate the terms of their visas. The Unit prioritizes cases related to individuals who may be involved in ongoing criminal activity or pose a threat to public safety. Other agencies partnering with ICE on the CEU are the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
"This is another example of how combined resources bring significant, substantive action against individuals engaged in illegal activity," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. "This team is proving most effective."