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Arrests made in 'pay to stay' immigration scheme at L.A. area schools

Authorities say 4 L.A. schools are in the business of giving immigration documents to people who didn't attend

Three nights a week, the instructor dutifully showed up to teach at two Koreatown-area campuses that together boasted more than 900 students.

For Business Law II and U.S. Government at American College of Forensic Studies on Mondays and Thursdays, three students typically turned up. For Introduction to Politics at Prodee University on Wednesdays, attendance was often zero.

To investigators, something was clearly amiss.

The colleges, federal authorities alleged Wednesday, were part of a network of four schools that allowed hundreds of foreign nationals to illegally remain in the U.S. on fraudulent student visas in what investigators called a "pay to stay" scheme. For payments up to $1,800 every six months, the schools provided paperwork for student visas for enrollees, many of whom never set foot on campus and lived in places as far-flung as Hawaii and Texas, authorities allege.

Among those registered as active students in the schools was the owner and operator of a beauty salon in Dallas, a married couple living in Las Vegas, and one person who bounced around from New York to San Francisco, Houston and Honolulu all while they were supposed to be attending classes in Los Angeles.

Three operators behind the alleged scheme, including headmaster and owner Hee Sun "Leonard" Shim, were arrested Wednesday in a crackdown that could send a jolt through the lucrative world of for-profit universities that increasingly turn to deep-pocketed foreign students to boost their business.

Shim and employees Hyung Chan "Steve" Moon, 39, and Eun Young "Jamie" Choi," 35, face charges that include conspiracy to commit immigration fraud. Shim is also accused of other immigration offenses and money laundering.

Shim's four schools, which also include Walter Jay M.D. Institute in Koreatown and Likie Fashion and Technology College in Alhambra, brought in an estimated $6 million a year, authorities allege.

"The biggest concern here is this compromises the legitimate immigration system," said Claude Arnold, who heads the Los Angeles field office of Homeland Security Investigations, which handled the case. Arnold said such operations could also jeopardize national security by allowing people into the country under the guise of being students.

Shim, Moon and Choi could not be reached for comment. Calls to the schools generally went unanswered; an office assistant who picked up the phone at Likie Fashion and Technology College declined to comment.

At the main Wilshire Boulevard campus of Prodee on Wednesday, agents carted away boxes of documents from the offices of the school that occupied most of the fifth floor, with about 10 classrooms. A large corkboard in the main office was plastered with newspaper clippings and online printouts in Korean about immigration raids and deportations, including one with advice for when immigration officers show up at one's door.

Scribbled on one whiteboard was a warning that "consecutive absence" and "2 weeks no show" could lead to dismissal.

Denny S. Jung, who works in the building as a paralegal, said a friend of his was enrolled as a student at Prodee. Jung, who said he'd known Shim for about 15 years, said he had introduced the friend to Shim because the friend needed to legally extend his stay after moving to L.A. from New York while waiting to enroll at Santa Monica College.

People who come to the school "all have their reasons," said Jung, who described Shim as a nice man willing to help people out.

Federal investigators described Shim's operation as being "permeated with fraud" and said Shim lived in a multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills residence funded by the scheme.

The case began with a routine, unannounced visit by immigration officials to the school in 2011, according to an affidavit. On one campus, there was an English-language training class with three students. At another, only one religious class was in session with one student, even though it was the second day of spring semester, the affidavit stated.

"It was clear something was going on," Arnold said.

Investigators interviewed dozens of the school's students, many of whom lived out of state and admitted to never having attended classes. In conversations secretly recorded by agents, school operators assured students they would not need to be physically present.

"Do I have to pretend that I actually attended the school?" one student asked, according to an affidavit.

Choi, one of those arrested Wednesday, responded: "Of course. If you say you didn't, you would be deported.... You should absolutely say that you lived in L.A., O.K.?"

If convicted, Shim, Moon and Choi could face lengthy prison sentences.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.

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