Eamonn Daniel Higgins spent seven years in college.
Between 2002 and 2009, he attended 10 different schools in Southern California, including Cal State L.A., Irvine Valley College and Santa Monica College, according to federal prosecutors. During that time, he studied sociology, marketing, English, business and math.
But Higgins was not a student and wasn’t registered in any of the classes, authorities said. Rather, dozens of foreign students -- all from the Middle East -- were paying him to sit in class, take exams and write papers so that 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 about $1,000 for English and writing proficiency exams, prosecutors allege.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents said the demand for Higgins’ services was so great that he hired staff, including a blond woman who they believe posed as an Middle Eastern man.
Higgins, 46, a U.S. citizen who lives in Laguna Niguel, surrendered to authorities Monday and pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana to conspiracy to commit visa fraud. He is free on $5,000 bail. If convicted, he faces up to five years in federal prison.
Higgins and his attorney, federal public defender Elizabeth Macias, declined to comment after the hearing.
Authorities believe Higgins earned hundreds of thousands of dollars helping about 120 people from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey and Qatar maintain their student visa status.
“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.”
Parker said that there is no evidence at this time to indicate that any of the students had any terrorist ties but that it was too early to “make any assumptions or draw any conclusions.”
“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 Monday also arrested 16 people who allegedly hired Higgins, including six who face criminal visa fraud charges. Six more were asked to come in for questioning and the agency is searching for about 20 others.
The agency plans to contact the campuses to make sure they are aware of the alleged fraud. The other campuses include: Saddleback College, Coastline Community College, Golden West College, Orange Coast College, El Camino College, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Nathan Jensen, senior director of the Center for International Education at CSU Long Beach, which has about 1,200 foreign students, said he was surprised to hear how widespread the alleged visa fraud case was.
“You always hear about rumors of this, that students will try to have somebody else take a test for them in certain circumstances. But I haven’t ever known of any cases or students here,” he said. “I would think that it would be more isolated or unusual.”
Jensen said the required placement tests have a reputation for being difficult, but the campus provides help for international students who are struggling, such as tutoring and preparation courses. Authorities said Higgins and his staff took Cal State placement exams in addition to tests required by the federal government.
Susan Platt, director of testing and evaluation for the Long Beach campus, said it is very difficult to detect impostors who are taking tests for students, especially when they show up with identification. “If he has a fake driver’s license with his photo and a signature, even with a name that looks foreign, he is going to get in because it’s him. It’s his face on the fake ID,” Platt said. “It’s one of those pernicious kinds of cheating that is hard to catch, if they’re good at it.”
Foreigners who want to study in the U.S. must be accepted to a college or a university, apply for a student visa and pass an English proficiency exam. They must attend school full-time to keep their visas valid, or face deportation.
As of December 2009, there were 741,000 foreign students studying in the U.S. on active visas, all subject to regular checks about their status, immigration officials said.
Nevertheless, the case raises questions about whether the government has let its guard down since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when one of the hijackers was in the U.S. on a student visa, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“This is an indication that a lot of the abuses that led to 9/11 are still taking place,” Mehlman said. “The consequences are not just people getting phony grades. There are potential national security consequences at stake.”
The investigation into Higgins began last summer after police in Daly City, Calif., found a wallet with several fake California driver’s licenses, all bearing a photo of Higgins’ nephew, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. The names were listed in federal databases as being foreigners on student visas and studying at various campuses in California.
During a search at Higgins’ house, agents seized computers, graded college exams, 60 fraudulent California driver’s licenses, spiral notebooks with course notes, Scantron test forms and a check from a foreign student made payable to cash, according to court documents.
In e-mails, Higgins allegedly pledged that the students would get B grades or be given a discount, the documents said.
Higgins told investigators that he had been working as a tutor when he met the first students and then word spread about his service, Parker said. His ability to balance course work and pass tests, she said, made him popular among foreign students.
Oddly enough, Parker said, Higgins never went to college himself.