Prosecutors allege that some of the clients traveled to the Middle East multiple times and gained re-entry to the U.S. by applying for a student visa and registering to study at a different college.
Six of the students have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Ten more have been placed in deportation proceedings, and immigration officials are searching for more than 30 more still believed to be in the U.S.
Authorities believe Higgins might have helped hundreds of students between 2002 and 2009 and have evidence linking him to 119 names, said Debra Parker, acting deputy special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
The extent of the investigation raises critical questions about how much responsibility colleges should bear in confirming the identities of foreign students, education experts said.
Universities have resisted taking on too much responsibility for immigration enforcement in the past, in part because of privacy issues and because many schools have limited resources or training for such work.
“This is a constant arms race,” said Stewart Baker, former undersecretary for policy with the Department of Homeland Security. “The DHS will have to make some tough decisions about how much more responsibility for performing identity checks they want to place on universities, which have been pretty resistant to that kind of burden.”
At Golden West College, a 14,000-student community college in Huntington Beach, Calif., authorities were stunned by the claims that some of their foreign students had engaged in visa fraud. The college doesn’t check student IDs for routine exams and has no way of knowing if students are using fake documentation, said Margie Bunten, a college spokeswoman.
“They just have the documentation that they’re supposed to have, and if it’s fraudulent, we don’t check,” she said. “We just weren’t aware of this.”