SANTA ANA, Calif. - An Orange County man pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit visa fraud for orchestrating a scheme to have imposters take college classes, exams and placement tests on behalf of dozens foreign students so they could maintain their lawful immigration status as foreign students.
Eamonn Daniel Higgins, 46, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., entered his plea in U.S. District Court Wednesday afternoon to the charge, which stemmed from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Higgins' sentencing is set for August 9 at 9:30 a.m. before Judge James V. Selna. Conspiracy to commit visa fraud carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Higgins was the central figure in a visa fraud scheme involving foreign students from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey and Qatar who allegedly paid him and his associates thousands of dollars to take college classes, exams and placement tests on their behalf. The students were enrolled at institutions throughout Southern California, including several junior colleges and three California State University campuses.
According to court documents, Higgins received up to $1,500 to complete final examinations and other classroom work for the foreign students, and $1,000 for taking required English proficiency tests. The ICE investigation revealed Higgins used personal identifying information provided by the foreign students to obtain counterfeit California driver's licenses. Then he and his associates, posing as the foreign students, allegedly took the tests and examinations and attended the classes on the students' behalf. The conspiracy is believed to have begun in January 2002 and continued through mid-December of 2009.
In addition to Higgins, eight of the foreign students implicated in the case have also been charged with visa fraud. Their criminal cases are still pending.
"Visa fraud not only undermines the integrity of our nation's legal immigration system, it also poses a significant security vulnerability," said Miguel Unzueta, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles. "ICE will move aggressively to identify and prosecute those who engage in fraud and corrupt the immigration process for profit."
The investigation was 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.