A California man was charged Monday with operating a ring of illegal test-takers who helped dozens of Middle Eastern nationals obtain U.S. student visas by passing various proficiency and college-placement exams for them, federal authorities said.
Eamonn Daniel Higgins, 46, of Laguna Niguel made an appearance in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud as federal immigration agents arrested 16 of his suspected clients who remained in Southern California.
A judge entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Higgiins.
The allegations revealed a potentially dangerous security breach in the country's student visa system and underscored the vulnerability of a tracking process that relies on schools to verify the identities of people taking the mandated exams.
In one case, a blond woman working for Higgins was allowed to take an exam using a fake ID that paired her photo with a man's Arabic name, Parker said. Authorities have not said any of the clients were engaged in terrorist activity and have yet to determine their motives for hiring Higgins.
Still, the investigation has alarmed immigration authorities, said Debra Parker, acting deputy special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
"Visa fraud is always a concern but their motive is definitely something that all of the participating agencies will be taking a very, very close look at over the next few weeks," she said.
Six of Higgins' alleged clients face criminal charges, with the remaining 42 subject of deportation proceedings, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A federal magistrate allowed Higgins to go free on $5,000 bail. His public defender, Elizabeth Macias, declined to comment.
Authorities alleged that over a seven-year period, Higgins collected tens of thousands of dollars from foreign students from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey and Qatar before he or his accomplices took their exams at 10 Southern California community colleges and universities using doctored IDs.
Higgins charged up to $1,500 per student per exam for passing grades on English proficiency exams, writing assessments, English and math college placement tests, final exams and other college coursework the students needed to obtain their F-1 student visas or to stay current on the visas, authorities said.
U.S. colleges and universities began using a specialized tracking system for foreign students after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the current investigation exposed an unexpected loophole, Parker said.
The scheme operated from 2002 to 2009 at seven Southern California community colleges and three California State University campuses in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Dominguez Hills, Kice said.
Higgins, who doesn't have a college degree himself, had so many clients that he recruited about a dozen other people to take the exams as well, authorities allege. No criminal charges have been filed against the other test-takers.
Immigration agents raided Higgins' home in December as part of an eight-month investigation and recovered a computer hard drive that indicated Higgins may have worked with hundreds of foreign students, although authorities have only been able to definitively identify 119, Parker said.
The investigation began when police in Daly City in Northern California discovered seven fake driver's licenses in a lost wallet, according to court papers. Each of the fake licenses featured a photo of Higgins' nephew.
A search of law enforcement databases showed the names on the IDs matched students who had entered the country on student visas and studied in Southern California.
A search of Higgins' home turned up 60 fake IDs, college testing materials and completed exams and payment information from foreign students, court papers said.
Foreign students seeking a nonimmigrant F-1 student visa must submit a passing score on an English proficiency exam in order to qualify for the visa.
In addition, all undergraduates entering the California State University system must take math and English placement tests as a condition of enrollment and complete remedial programs within a year of enrollment if they don't score well.
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