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Visa security questioned amid test-taking scams

SANTA ANA, Calif. - A ring accused of helping people from the Middle East obtain student visas by taking their proficiency exams and classes has exposed vulnerability in the nation's security tracking system for foreigners who attend U.S. schools, experts said yesterday.

The bust unsettled immigration authorities and federal lawmakers who implemented the sophisticated Foreign Student and Exchange Visitor Information System after learning one of the Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the United States on a student visa.

Immigration officials have broken up similar fraud rings recently in Miami; Orange County, Calif.; Atlanta and the Los Angeles area. All of those involved Korean students.

The scrutiny of foreign students once they arrive on a U.S. campus is a "serious chink in the armor" of the system, said Janice Kephart, former counsel to the 9/11 Commission and the national security policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies.

"Vulnerability with universities remains a top issue," she said. "It's a clean way to come into the U.S."

Federal prosecutors charged a California man Monday with operating a ring of illegal test-takers who helped dozens of Middle Eastern nationals fraudulently obtain and keep U.S. student visas in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.

Authorities allege Eamonn Higgins, 46, and a dozen associates helped the students stay current on their immigration paperwork by attending classes in their name, writing term papers and taking finals with guaranteed grades of B or above.

The case also alarmed Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who became interested in the student visa tracking system after a 2007 case at the University of South Florida.

Bilirakis, a ranking member the House homeland security oversight and investigations subcommittee, is sponsoring a bill that would require in-person interviews of foreign students every 30 days during the school year and every 60 days during nonacademic periods.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have not suggested the California ring was linked to terrorism.

Ten schools - seven community colleges and three California State University campuses - were affected.

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