Two South Florida residents have been arrested and formally charged with operating a major student visa fraud ring. Government prosecutors have alleged that the two women defrauded the federal government into issuing more than 200 student visas to foreign nationals who are not and never were students in the United States. According to sources, the bust is largest ever visa scheme to defraud in Immigration Customs Enforcement's ("ICE's) history. The indictment alleges that all of the visas were connected to fraudulently enrolled students at Florida Language Institute located in Miami. The women are scheduled to appear in federal court this week. It is unclear at this point whether the women will be represented by criminal lawyers from the public defender's office or private Miami criminal defense lawyers.
The federal government has taken fraudulent student visas very seriously since the 9/11 attacks. Many of the terrorists involved in the attacks entered the United States using fraudulent visas. For example, the terrorist that piloted the plane into the Pentagon obtained a student visa to study English in this country. Upon his arrival, he told airport officials that he intended to take classes in California. Since the attacks, federal investigators have closely scrutinized schools that accept foreign students to ensure that the students actually show up for class and that the visas are not being used for terrorism or to hide illegal employment or immigration.
The grand jury indictment alleges that Lydia Menocal, the school's director, and Ofelia Macia, another school employee, falsely executed requests for student visas for foreign students. The documents allegedly executed were immigration forms called I-20's or certificates of eligibility that are used to apply to the federal government to obtain the student visas. The students for whom applications were sought never attended the college under scrutiny. Federal law enforcement has yet to determine where the purported students are and what they are presently doing. The federal government does not believe at this time that the two defendants were assisting terrorists. They believe they were selling the rights to visas for monetary gain.
The two defendants will appear before a United States magistrate at there initial appearance. At that time, the government may seek pre-trial detention. As long as the defendants have ties to the community, the court will have a difficult time holding them because they are a danger to the community, as there is no evidence suggested by the government that either defendant sought to assist terrorists. After their initial hearing, both defendants will appear at their arraignment. The arraignment is the point in the case where the formal charges are announced in open court. After the arraignment, the defense will have time to review the discovery and consult with their clients. Based on a thorough review of the evidence, both defendant will decide to either enter a guilty plea or take their case to trial. A lot will depend on what the defendants are facing according to the federal sentencing guidelines.
Two Miami Women Charged with Running Vast Student Visa Fraud Ring, The Miami Herald, March 4, 2010.