SANTA ANA, Calif. – A California man was charged Monday with operating a ring of illegal test-takers who helped dozens of Middle Eastern nationals obtain U.S. student visas by passing various proficiency and college-placement exams for them, federal authorities said.
The allegations reveal a potentially dangerous security breach in the country’s student visa system and underscored the vulnerability of a tracking process that relies on schools and testing centers to verify the identities of people taking the mandated exams.
Eamonn Daniel Higgins, 46, of Laguna Niguel, made an appearance in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud as federal immigration agents arrested 16 of his suspected clients who remained in Southern California. A judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
In one case, a blond woman working for Higgins was allowed to take an exam using a fake ID that paired her photo with a man’s Arabic name, said Debra Parker, acting deputy special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
Authorities have not said any of the clients were engaged in terrorist activity and have yet to determine their motives for hiring Higgins. Six of Higgins’ alleged clients face criminal charges, while the remaining students face deportation proceedings, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE. Ten additional students were not arrested but will be questioned by agents in the ongoing investigation, Kice said.
The students were charged as much as $1,500 per exam.