F-1 visa scam: owner of four California schools plead guilty to immigration fraud

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The owner of four schools in California that ran four ‘pay-to-stay’ schools that allowed hundreds of foreign students on F-1 visa to pay for non-existent classes, skip school without retribution and scout for work, pleaded guilty to federal immigration fraud charges, on Thursday.

Hee Sun Shim (also known as Leonard Shim and Leo Shim), 53, of Beverly Hills, the owner and manager of the schools, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and immigration document fraud.

Shim, along with two co-defendants – ran a “pay-to-stay” scheme through three schools in Koreatown – Prodee University/Neo-America Language School; Walter Jay M.D. Institute, an Educational Center (WJMD); and the American College of Forensic Studies (ACFS). A fourth school in Alhambra – Likie Fashion and Technology College – was also involved in the scheme, which ran for at least six years.

Prodee and the other schools issued immigration documents to foreign nationals who were not bona fide students, had no intention of attending the schools, and sometimes lived outside of California.

As part of the conspiracy, Shim created bogus student records, including transcripts, for some of the students for the purpose of deceiving immigration authorities, and get an F-1 visa. In exchange for the immigration documents that allowed them to remain in the United States, the purported “students” made “tuition” payments to Shim and his co-conspirators to “enroll” and remain enrolled at the schools, according o the Justice Department.

Two other defendants named in the 2015 indictment – Hyung Chan Moon (also known as Steve Moon), 40, of Los Angeles, and Eun Young Choi (also known as Jamie Choi), 37, of Los Angeles – previously pleaded guilty and are pending sentencing.

The investigation in this case began in 2011 after a compliance team with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Student and Exchange Visitor Program, paid an unannounced visit to Prodee University’s main campus on Wilshire Boulevard.

During the visit, the team observed only one English language class with three students in attendance, even though records indicated more than 900 foreign students were enrolled at Prodee’s two campuses. That same day, an unannounced visit to ACFS found only one religion class in session with a single student present, even though the school had more than 300 foreign students in active status.

During the ensuing investigation, HSI special agents identified several dozen foreign nationals, primarily from South Korea and China, who originally entered the U.S. as F-1 non-immigrant students to attend other schools, but subsequently transferred to schools in the Prodee network. These students lived across the nation, indicating that they were not actually attending classes at Prodee or the other schools.

As detailed in court filings, Prodee and its affiliated schools were authorized to issue a document that certified a foreign national had been accepted to a school and would be a full-time student. The document – “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status – for Academic and Language Students,” which is commonly called a Form I-20 – made a student eligible to obtain an F-1 student visa that would allow the student to enter and remain in the United States while the student was making normal progress toward completing a full course of study.

Shim faces a statutory maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced by United States District Judge George H. Wu on June 5. In his plea agreement, Shim agreed to forfeit to the United States approximately $465,000 in bank funds and cash that were seized by investigators in 2015.