UAE students held over US visa scam

More than 100 people from the Middle East are said to have paid a 'test-taking ring' to attend classes and sit exams for them.

ABU DHABI // Four UAE students were among more than 100 people from the Middle East said to have paid up to US$1,500 (Dh5,500) each to have someone else attend classes and take exams for them so that they could obtain and keep American student visas.

The four were being held by police in California last night charged with visa fraud. The "test-taking ring" was allegedly run by Eamonn Higgins, 46, from Orange County, who surrendered to US authorities on Monday following an eight-month investigation that involved the FBI and Los Angeles police. Sixteen people from the Middle East were arrested, US immigration officials said. Six, including the UAE students, have been charged. The rest faced deportation.

All four UAE students were registered at the state's Irvine Valley College. They enrolled between August 2007 and January this year. Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said they were taken into custody and handed over to the US Marshals. It was possible that more people could be charged, she added. Immigration officials were searching for dozens of others thought to be involved in the ring, who are believed to still be in the US.

Since the US requires non-citizens to be full-time students to be eligible for student visas, the alleged scheme would have falsely granted foreigners the right to stay in the country. According to US authorities, Mr Higgins charged between $1,000 and $1,500 to take final examinations and English proficiency tests. He also recruited others to pretend to be students, police said. In one case, a blonde woman was said to have taken the place of a Middle Eastern man.

Mr Higgins is also accused of forging identification documents such as driver's licences, which are required to sit the exams. ICE said the students involved were from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. The alleged ring ran from 2002 until last December. The UAE Embassy in Washington said: "We are aware of the situation in California involving federal charges and arrests of individuals alleged to have participated in fraudulent student visa activity.

"We are obviously concerned about these allegations and will continue to monitor the proceedings. We are prepared to co-operate with all officials as the process moves forward." Authorities searched Mr Higgins's home in Laguna Niguel. They said he sat tests for foreign students in business, mathematics, marketing, sociology and English. If found guilty, Higgins would face up to five years in federal prison. He has been released on $5,000 bail.

The students were registered fraudulently in junior colleges and universities in California. In the US, the case has raised concerns about security, with some expressing fears such "students" could may be connected to terrorist activity. Police have said there is no such evidence. "Visa fraud poses a significant security vulnerability and undermines the integrity of our nation's legal immigration system," said John Morton, the assistant secretary at the department of homeland security, which oversees the ICE.

"We will move aggressively to identify and prosecute those who engage in fraud and corrupt the immigration process for profit." The scrutiny of foreign students once they arrived on a US campus was a "serious chink in the armour" of the system, said Janice Kephart, the national security policy director at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "Vulnerability with universities remains a top issue," she said. "It's a clean way to come into the US."

* The National with additional reporting from the Associated Press