Man arrested, charged with assisting foreign students obtain visas

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Eamonn Daniel Higgins, 46, a resident of Laguna Niguel, was arrested last week on charges of operating a ring of illegal test-takers who allegedly assisted international students in retaining their student visas by taking their proficiency exams and attending their classes.

For the last eight years, prosecutors said Higgins aided mostly Middle Eastern students by taking or directing his associates to take math and English proficiency exams. Higgins then helped them hold on to those visas by taking college courses, passing finals and writing term papers in their names. According to court reports, the investigation began when officers in Daly City in Northern California discovered several fake driver’s licenses in a lost wallet. Each license had the same photograph of Higgins’ nephew but with different names.

Higgins surrendered to authorities March 8, pleading not guilty to conspiracy to commit visa fraud. If convicted, he faces up to five years in federal prison.

The F1 student visa is a non-immigrant visa which allows foreign students to enter into the U.S. to attend a full course of study at colleges, universities and other institutions with language training programs. Although it is unclear if there is a specific proficiency exam that international students need to take in order to qualify for an F-1 visa, many institutions, including Cal State Fullerton, require all applicants whose native language is not English to present scores for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) prior to admittance.

According to CSUF’s international students’ webpage, Students who do not meet the minimum TOEFL scores or wish to improve their English skills may enroll in the American Language Program (ALP), an intensive English program that is designed to prepare international students for study in a U.S. college or university.

Monica Snow, lecturer and coordinator at the ALP at CSUF said that there are stringent measures taken at the center to ensure that cheating or impersonating does not occur in any form while students take any placement or proficiency tests. All international students who walk in to take any tests are required to present their I.D.s, after which their faces are matched to the picture on the card. While taking the tests, students have to leave their I.D.s on their desks while proctors circulate the room. Faces are again matched to I.D.s when students turn in their tests once they are finished, Snow said.

“With the measures we have in place here, it could be very difficult for students to do that. I have been here 23 years and I haven’t had one incident yet,” Snow said. Snow added that there are around 250 international students at CSUF who are enrolled in the ALP. The administrators and staff for the most part know the majority of the students as they interact with them on a daily basis.

The University Testing Center at CSUF, located in University hall, offers several tests, such as the English Placement Test (EPT), Entry Level Mathematics (ELM) test and the Examination in Writing Proficiency (EWP), all of which are required for admission to the university, placement in classes and graduation.

Lorrie Harnach, coordinator at the testing center, said that students who take any tests are required to present a valid form of I.D., such as a driver’s license or passport. Seating is sometimes assigned and proctors should be able to move freely among examinees in order to effectively monitor testing. After tests are taken, I.D.s and faces are matched again and names are compared to the ones on the answer sheets. Student signatures on answer sheets are also matched with the one on the student’s I.D.

Although no such incident has occurred at the center to her knowledge, Harnach said that the possibility of students cheating or impersonating others cannot be ruled out. “If a student presented what appeared to be a valid form of I.D. where the picture matched the person, we would not have any way of knowing if it was fraudulent or not,” she said.

LayTuan Tan, director of International Education and Exchange at CSUF, said that all international students at CSUF are part of the Exchange Visitor Program that is regulated and operated by the U.S. Department of State. Tan said that at CSUF, all students with foreign visas are required to maintain continuous enrollment, and have to report within ten days of a change in address or within 21 days of dropping a class.

According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Web site, Congress mandated a fee-based system to better keep track of international students and exchange visitors in the United States. To accomplish this task, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) under ICE. The Student Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is the database that allows SEVP to track international students, exchange visitors and their dependents to ensure that they are in the United States for the purposes they stated.

“This is bad news for the international education field,” Tan said of the visa fraud incident. “The Majority of our scholars are serious, bona fide students who come here for the quality of education that the U.S. provides. These things do happen, but they give our international students a bad name,” Tan said.

Although Tan said that the implications of this incident could be huge and highly complicated, she added it was unfortunate that most media organizations were alluding to hints of possible terrorist ties within the fraud ring. “Just because these students are from the Middle East, they say they might be terrorists. You cannot say that, it is stereotyping,” Tan said.

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