Three men were arrested Wednesday in connection with an alleged "pay-to-stay" immigration scam that involved four Los Angeles-area trade schools, three in Koreatown and one in Alhambra.
U.S. Department of Justice officials said the schools' owner and two employees enrolled foreign students for a fee in exchange for student visa documents that let them stay in the country - although they knew the "students" had no intention of attending classes.
Investigators estimate that the operation took in as much as $6 million a year in "tuition," with those who enrolled paying as much as $1,800 for six months. According to federal officials, as many 2,000 people were issued fraudulent student visa documents through the scam.
The four schools listed in the federal indictment are Prodee University/Neo-America Language School; Walter Jay M.D. Institute, an Educational Center; the American College of Forensic Studies; and Likie Fashion and Technology College, which is in Alhambra.
The schools' owner and manager, Hee Sun Shim, along with Hyung Chan Moon and former employee Eun Young Choi, were charged in a 21-count indictment with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and other immigration offenses, along with money laundering.
According to the indictment, the defendants would inform "purported foreign students" that they could enroll at one of the schools in their network without having to take classes.
Then, after admitting them, they would "issue and provide to the purported foreign students Form I-20s that were forged, altered, falsely made, and procured by fraud since the purported foreign students had no intention of attending school and were not bona fide students," the indictment reads.
The 1-20 form makes a foreign student eligible to obtain an F-1 student visa so long as they are attending a federally-approved school, allowing them to remain in the country legally while pursuing their studies.
Federal officials say that while the trade schools held some classes, the operation was largely fraudulent. The investigation began in 2011, after a team of Department of Homeland Security inspectors visited the schools and found very few students.
From a Department of Justice statement:
During the visit, the team observed only one English language class with three students in attendance, even though records for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) showed more than 900 foreign students were enrolled at Prodee’s two campuses. That same day, the SEVP team made an unannounced visit to ACFS where they found only one religion class in session with a single student present. At the time, SEVIS records indicated that ACFS had more than 300 foreign students in active status.
According to the indictment, some students who were supposedly enrolled weren't even living in the state.