MIAMI - A local woman was sentenced on Friday to 15 months in prison for her role in student visa fraud. This ultimately became U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) largest-ever student visa fraud investigation netting 116 administrative arrests of student visa violators.
Lydia Menocal, 58, from Miami was also ordered to serve two years of supervised release after she completes her sentence, pay a $5,000 fine and forfeit around $600,000 in money and property to the United States.
Her co-defendant, Ofelia Macia, 75, of Miami, also was sentenced on Friday to one year probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
Menocal was the director and sole shareholder of Florida Language Institute Inc. (FLI), a language school in a strip mall located at 947 Southwest 87th Ave. in Miami. Menocal and Macia, on FLI's behalf, applied to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 to authorize FLI to issue I-20 forms directly to foreign nationals wishing to enter or remain in the United States as full-time language students. I-20 forms are certificates of eligibility for non-immigrant F-1 student status for academic and language students. I-20 forms are necessary for potential foreign national students to obtain their F-1 student visas.
As part of the DHS application, the defendants stated that they had read and understood all the pertinent federal regulations governing DHS-approved schools, including the regulations requiring students to attend class at least 18 hours per week and requiring school officials to report students who were not attending regularly. Based on the defendants' representations that they had read, understood and agreed to abide by these regulations, DHS approved FLI's application to issue I-20 forms to foreign nationals wishing to enter or remain in the United States as full-time language students.
"This case serves a warning to other academic institutions that you will be investigated and prosecuted if you engage in this type of criminal activity," said Anthony V. Mangione, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Miami. "One of the lessons learned from the September 11 attacks is that the U.S. government must be vigilant and aggressive in conducting investigations into organizations and persons who seek to exploit and corrupt America's legal immigration system for personal gain."
In November 2007, ICE-HSI special agents assigned to Miami's Compliance Enforcement Group initiated a criminal investigation dubbed "Operation Class Dismissed." The operation focused on Menocal and FLI after ICE received information that the school was allegedly fraudulently sponsoring foreign students. It was suspected that FLI issued I-20s without requiring the students to attend at least 18 hours of classes per week, as they had agreed to do under federal regulations.
On March 2, pursuant to a federal indictment, ICE-HSI special agents arrested Menocal and Macia on the criminal charges. Additionally, ICE special agents administratively arrested 116 student visa violators, who are currently facing immigration removal proceedings or have been ordered removed from the United States. About 36 of those students had turned themselves in to ICE following the March 2 enforcement action. More than 20 additional students, who were alleged to be attending FLI, departed the United States after learning about the March 2 ICE arrests.
Between July 2007 and March 2010, Menocal issued and signed hundreds of I-20s for foreign nationals wishing to attend FLI. On each form, Menocal swore under penalty of perjury that each student would be required to attend FLI for a full course of study, i.e., 18 hours a week. In fact, none of the hundreds of foreign nationals that Menocal issued I-20 forms to were required to attend FLI. Menocal did not report to DHS that these students were not attending class for the required 18 hours a week.
For example, in November 2007, DHS ICE officials conducted a site visit at FLI. The site visit was done while FLI was supposed to be conducting classes and 230 students were registered for the semester. Indeed, some students had signed in as if they had attended. But when DHS ICE officials visited FLI, no one was there, except for Menocal, Macia and some other school employees. The DHS ICE officials came back for a second site visit later that day and found only three students at the school, even though 13 had signed in. Menocal lied to the DHS ICE officials and said that 150 students attended class daily.
In 2007, two students in particular - K.R. and L.F.E. -were issued I-20s by Menocal, and were signed up to take classes, but almost never attended. Attendance records from 2007 show that neither student attended classes. When both students applied again to attend FLI in the fall of 2009, Menocal again issued the students I-20s and swore on the forms that they would be required to attend class 18 hours a week, knowing that they would not attend. For the second time, neither student attended the required classes. Indeed, Menocal allowed K.R. to take the midterm and the final examinations for the fall 2009 semester on the same day, in January 2010, after the semester had ended.
Menocal did not report to DHS that K.R. and L.F.E. were not attending classes.
From July 2007 to March 2010, Menocal earned at least $600,000 by charging the foreign nationals for the I-20 forms, but not requiring that they attend class. The $600,000 represents the proceeds of Menocal's fraud.
Court records show that Macia, the school's office manager, was at the school daily and managed many of the school's operations, including the collection of payments. She knew that the foreign national students signed up to attend FLI were required to go to class at least 18 hours a week. Macia knew that as a designated school official she had a duty to report to DHS any students who were not meeting the attendance requirements. Macia also knew that the foreign national students who had been issued I-20s by FLI were not attending class 18 hours a week. Macia did not report to DHS that these students were not attending class.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Roy K. Altman and Robert J. Luck, Southern District of Florida, prosecuted this case.