In a startling discovery by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a Beverly Hills man who operates two schools that teach English to foreign students was arrested on federal charges for allegedly running a visa fraud scheme that allowed foreign nationals from around the world to obtain student visas to enter the United States, even though they had no intention of attending the schools or were fraudulently trying to remain in the United States.
Behzad "Ben" Zaman, 50, was arrested without incident this morning by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Concord English Language Center, one of the two schools he operates. Zaman is expected to make his initial appearance this afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles.
ICE agents also executed search warrants today at the two schools - Concord and International College for English Studies - which are located on Wilshire Boulevard, just west of downtown Los Angeles. The search warrant affidavit alleges that Zaman, in exchange for sizeable cash payments, assisted ineligible foreign nationals in fraudulently obtaining F-1 student visas and kept them enrolled in his schools for extended periods, even though they were not attending classes. The schools purported to have more than 1,000 students in early 2008.
In the words of United States Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien, "This flagrant violation of our immigration laws shows how greed can compromise our national security," he also added, "We welcome legitimate students who want to take advantage of educational opportunities in America. We do not welcome individuals posing as students who have no intention of studying and who simply want to gain access to this country."
The indictment, which was returned by a federal grand jury here yesterday, lists payments for "tuition" from "students" from Uzbekistan and Latvia. According to the affidavit in support of the search warrant, some of those who benefited from the scheme were Russian prostitutes, who obtained student visas after claiming to attend Concord, even though an earlier investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department showed the women had never attended classes at the school.
"The scope of the crimes alleged in this indictment make it one of the largest student visa fraud schemes ever uncovered here on the West Coast," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge of the ICE office of investigations in Los Angeles. "We need to make it clear that admission to America is not for sale. These schemes not only undermine the integrity of our nation's legal immigration system, they also generate a sizeable amount of illicit income for those involved."
According to the search warrant affidavit, one student who entered the United States in 2001 attended Concord for two months, then advised Zaman she no longer wanted to attend the school. In response, Zaman allegedly told the "student" that he would maintain her status as a foreign student in exchange for $300 a month. Another scenario described in the affidavit involves a Thai national who told ICE agents she paid $2,000 a year to obtain immigration status from International College, even though she did not attend classes there.
The 76-page affidavit also recounts the case of an Indonesian "student" who entered the country on an F-1 visa. The day after arriving in the United States, the student told ICE agents that Zaman advised him he did not have attend classes "if he had other things to do," but he would be reported to immigration authorities if he failed to pay his "tuition." Several other "students" told investigators they paid reduced "tuition" to attend Concord occasionally - or not at all - even though the school reported them as attending full-time and therefore eligible to remain in the United States as "students."
The indictment charges Zaman with seven counts of fraud and misuse of visa, one count of conspiring to money launder and six counts of concealment of money laundering. The 14 counts carry a statutory maximum penalty of 210 years in federal prison.
The F-1 Student Visa Program allows foreign students to study in the United States if certain conditions are met. An ICE examination of the Student Exchange Visitor and Information System (SEVIS) showed that students were "transferred" from Concord to ICES, and vice-versa, without their knowledge. In addition, the court documents conclude that the schools' operations were bogus because both schools purported to have more than 1,000 "students" in early 2008, a number that far exceeded their physical capacity and was not supported by investigators' observations of people actually attending classes.