A Florida language school helped illegally obtain student visas for foreign nationals who never went to class, violating laws enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks exposed weaknesses in the program, authorities said Thursday.
Eighty-one student visa holders purportedly studying at the Florida Language Institute have been arrested. None was on any federal watch list or linked to terrorism, U.S. authorities said, though investigators were checking their backgrounds.
"We don't know exactly what they were doing," said U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman.
The school's owner, Lydia Menocal, 58, and employee Ofelia Macia, 75, allegedly made $2.4 million over the past three years from foreign nationals applying for U.S. student visas. It was not clear how much they charged each student for the paperwork, authorities said.
Menocal and Macia were charged with conspiring to commit an offense against the U.S., and Menocal faces other charges including falsifying immigration documents, according to a grand jury indictment.
Messages left for Menocal at the school and for the women's attorney were not immediately returned.
The women "made a profit, in effect, by selling student visas 'no questions asked,'" Sloman said.
The investigation "Operation Class Dismissed" began in 2007 when immigration officials received a tip that the school was processing student visas without requiring attendance in class, said Anthony Mangione, chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Miami office.
Of the approximately 200 students enrolled at Florida Language Institute in each of the past three years, only 5 percent regularly attended class, he said. The school offered classes to help international students improve their English skills.
Menocal and Macia failed to report to authorities, as required by the post-9/11 rules, that the vast majority of the Miami school's students were not coming to class, according to the indictment.
"It's a systemic failure to report to class, not a vacation day here and there," Mangione said.
One student visa holder was processed for deportation and released, and the rest remain in ICE custody. All were described as being in their 20s. More than 50 came from Thailand, and others came from Syria, Honduras, South Korea, Japan, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Indonesia, Venezuela and Brazil, ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas said.
Some of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks had student visas to stay in this country, including one who never showed up for class at a California language school.
Both Menocal and Macia were released Wednesday on bond, authorities said. If convicted, they face up to 5 years in prison on the conspiracy charge, and Menocal faces up to 10 years in prison on the other charges of making false statements. The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of $2.4 million.
Florida Language Institute has been decertified, and investigators were still looking for other students who may have broken the law, authorities said.
ICE officials said the takedown of the school was the largest visa fraud investigation in the agency's history.
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