Police allege that for the past seven years, 46-year-old Eamonn Higgins has fraudulently helped dozens of Middle Eastern natives pass mandatory tests to obtain or keep their US student visas in southern California.
Higgins allegedly organized a ring of illegal test-takers to pass English-proficiency exams, take college classes, pass finals and write term papers, in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars from foreign students from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey and Qatar.
Higgins was charged Monday with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud. The alleged scheme operated from 2002 to 2009 at seven Southern California community colleges and three California State University campuses.
Federal immigration agents also arrested 16 of Higgins' suspected clients in Southern California. Six of them face criminal charges, while the remaining students face deportation proceedings.
The investigation began when officials in Daly City in Northern California discovered seven fake driver's licenses in a lost wallet, according to court papers. Each of the fakes featured a photo of Higgins' nephew.
Immigration officials have broken up similar fraud rings in recent months in Miami, Orange County, Calif., Atlanta and the Los Angeles area.
U.S. colleges and universities began using a specialized tracking system for foreign students after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Janice Kephart, former counsel to the 9/11 Commission, said the scrutiny of foreign students once they arrive on a U.S. campus is a "serious chink in the armor" of the system.
"Vulnerability with universities remains a top issue," Kephart said. "It's a clean way to come into the U.S."