LOS ANGELES A woman who operates a flight school in La Verne, Calif., was arrested Wednesday morning on federal charges alleging she oversaw a visa fraud scheme that allowed foreign nationals from Egypt, Sri Lanka and Taiwan to enter the United States for commercial pilot training at her school, even though the school was not approved to accept foreign students.
Karena Chuang, 28, of Lake Elsinore, Calif., the owner of Blue Diamond Aviation, was arrested Wednesday without incident by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Chuang is charged with visa fraud in a criminal complaint filed November 17 in U.S. District Court.
The criminal complaint alleges Chuang helped foreign nationals obtain visas to attend flight schools approved to train foreign students when the students actually intended to enroll at Blue Diamond Aviation, which was not approved to enroll foreign nationals in its pilot training program. Chuang recruited students by offering lower tuition and a shorter training program than those offered by the authorized flight schools.
Foreign nationals who want to obtain commercial pilot training in the United States are required to obtain an M-1 student visa. To obtain this visa, a potential student must first apply to a flight training school that has been certified by the U.S. government to enroll foreign students. If the student meets the admission requirements, the flight school issues a Form I-20 that certifies the alien is eligible for the student visa. The Form I-20 is used to apply for an M-1 visa.
The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint alleges that Chuang applied for I-20s from government-certified flight schools on behalf of foreign students by pretending to be the cousin of the foreign students and, in some instances, paying the application fees at these other schools. After I-20s were issued by certified flight schools, Chuang allegedly would direct the foreign students to take the forms to the U.S. embassy or consulate in their country to apply for M-1 visas.
"Protecting national security is the top priority for the Justice Department, and one important way to protect the homeland is to have a secure system to control who enters the United States," said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. "Visa fraud schemes, such as the one allegedly operated by Ms. Chuang, may be driven by promises of financial gain, but they directly compromise the security of the United States."
"No one needs to be reminded why visa fraud involving flight schools poses a potential national security threat," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI in Los Angeles. "There's a good reason flight schools that accept foreign students must comply with extremely rigorous requirements and an equally good reason these cases are a top enforcement priority for HSI."
The investigation into Chuang began in June 2010 when visa security officers in the ICE Attaché Office in Cairo reported that two Egyptian nationals who had received visas to attend a northern California flight school admitted in an interview that they had, in fact, planned to enroll at Blue Diamond Aviation.
As part of Wednesday's enforcement action, ICE HSI agents executed federal search warrants at the flight school and at Chuang's residence.
Chuang is expected to make her initial appearance Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The charge of visa fraud carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
ICE HSI received assistance with the case from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Transportation Security Administration.