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Man charged in sweeping student visa fraud case

March 8, 2010 |  2:01 pm

Eamonn Daniel Higgins spent seven years attending college.

Between 2002 and 2009, he attended 10 different schools in Southern California, including Cal State Los Angeles, Irvine Valley College and Santa Monica College, according to federal prosecutors. During that time, he studied sociology, marketing, English, business and math.

The problem was that Higgins hadn’t registered for any of the courses, authorities said. Rather, dozens of foreign students -- mostly from the Middle East -- were paying him to sit in class, take exams and write papers for them so their student visas would remain valid, according to a charging document filed in the case. Students paid up to $1,500 for course assignments and finals and up to $1,000 for English and writing proficiency exams, the document said.

Investigators with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the demand was so great that he hired employees, including a blond woman who they believe posed as an Middle Eastern man to take a test. Agents are continuing to investigate the case and believe Higgins had several co-conspirators.

On Monday, Higgins, 46, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Santa Ana to conspiracy to commit visa fraud. During the brief hearing, Higgins told the judge he wasn’t working. He faces up to five years in federal prison if convicted. 

Higgins and his attorney, federal public defender Elizabeth Macias, declined comment.

Authorities believe he has helped more than 100 foreign students from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey and Qatar, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

"We have seen visa fraud schemes before, but we have never seen anything quite like this,” said Debra Parker, Los Angeles acting special agent in charge of investigations for the immigration agency. “This is something really sophisticated.”

Though immigration agents said they don’t believe that any of the students had links to terrorism, Parker said Monday the agency was still investigating. “It definitely highlights some of the vulnerability, the way these people were able to go and compromise the integrity of the immigration system,” Parker said.

Immigration agents on Monday morning also arrested 16 students who they believe hired Higgins and his staff. Six of the students have been charged criminally, while the others face immigration charges and possible deportation. Agents plan to interview the students in an effort to determine their motives.

The investigation began last summer after police in Daly City, Calif., found a wallet with seven fake California driver’s licenses, all with a photo of Higgins’ nephew, according to court documents.

-- Anna Gorman in Los Angeles and My-Thuan Tran in Santa Ana

Photo: ICE

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