Women charged in vast student visa scheme www.privateofficer.com
The Florida Language Institute occupies two small rooms in a corner of the second floor of a strip mall near a corner of West Miami-Dade.
But federal officials say the intensive English-as-a-second-language courses that the school offered to foreign students were not the only service for sale.
On Thursday, the school’s owner and director and the office manager faced charges of running a vast student-visa fraud scheme, and the Department of Homeland Security has essentially shut down the school, prohibiting it from accepting any more foreign students.
Officials said at least 80 students from multiple countries were also taken into custody and may be deported as a result of the two-year probe.
According to federal officials, the women, Lydia Menocal and Ofelia Macia, tricked immigration officials into granting more than 200 student visas to foreign nationals who were not really students.
Jeffrey H. Sloman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Anthony V. Mangione, special agent in charge at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations, Miami Field Office, described the scheme at a news conference as the largest single visa-fraud takedown since ICE was created in 2003.
The scam was simple: Foreign nationals fraudulently enrolled as students at Florida Language Institute, 947 SW 87th Ave., and received the papers to remain in the country as students, according to a grand jury indictment in the case.
Federal agents believe the students never showed up for any classes — and that the women knew it. It’s unclear how much the students paid for their fraudulent visas. Established 30 years ago, the institute charged $1,250 for five courses.
Neither Menocal, the director, nor Macia, the office manager, could be reached for comment. Their attorney, Manuel Gonzalez, did not return a call to his office.
Both women are out on bail.
The fraudulent use of student visas became a major issue in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when investigators discovered that some of the terrorists had student visas. One of the attackers, in fact, entered the United States as a student — but never showed up for classes in a California language school.
But even if there was no terror plot, officials said the case still posed national security risks.
This is not a case of students skipping classes to go to the beach,” said Alexander Alonso, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, ICE Office of Investigations. “This was an organized system that enabled people who otherwise would not be able to obtain a visa to get a visa through false methods.”
Investigators are still trying to determine what the students were actually doing in the United States. They came from Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.