Authorities arrested the operators of four Los Angeles-area trade schools for allegedly running an elaborate "pay-to-stay" scam in which foreign nationals used student visas to stay in the United States without actually going to school.
The schools appear to have tapped the booming Asian immigration population in Koreatown and the San Gabriel Valley. Authorities say the suspects took in $6 million a year in tuition payments.
Hee Sun Shim, 51, of Beverly Hills; Hyung Chan Moon, 39; and Eun Young Choi, 35, were named in a 21-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury Tuesday.
Authorities say Shim operated three schools in Koreatown and a fourth in Alhambra that enrolled hundreds of foreign nationals in their schools so they could remain in the country knowing the students had no plans of attending.
The schools identified by investigators were Prodee University/Neo-America Language School; Walter Jay M.D. Institute; an Educational Center and the American College of Forensic Studies and Likie Fashion and Technology College in Alhambra.
"Officials at several schools allegedly abused their responsibility to ensure that only legitimate foreign students were allowed to the stay in the country," said Acting United States Attorney Stephanie Yonekura in a statement. "This type of fraud against the United States will be thoroughly examined to bring those responsible to justice and to protect the integrity of our immigration system."
Shim, Moon and Choi were arrested by immigration agents and are expected to be arraigned Thursday. Their charges include conspiring to commit immigration fraud, money laundering and encouraging illegal residence.
The arrests were the culmination of a four-year probe by Homeland Security Investigations.
The men's scam was discovered when agents with Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Program made a surprise visit to Prodee University's main campus on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown. The school had more than 900 students enrolled on its books, but officials say they found only three students in a single English-language class.
A surprise check at American College of Forensic Studies had a similar result, authorities said. Investigators found one student in one religion class though 300 foreign students were considered "active" at the school.
The key to the scam was an immigration document that allows shows a foreign national has been accepted into a government-certified school and will be attending it full time. The "students" paid up to $1,800 for six month's "tuition"to the men so they would appear to be enrolled and could remain in the United States, authorities said.
The men allegedly faked school transcripts and other student records, including school transfer papers when authorities questioned the length of a student's stay.
Authorities said they plan to have each university's Student and Exchange Visitor Program certification withdrawn. Students enrolled in the schools have to reach out to exchange program officials to determine what to do next, the U.S. Attorneys Office said.