LOS ANGELES – The owner of four schools in Southern California that enrolled hundreds foreign nationals who fraudulently obtained immigration documents allowing them to remain in the United States as “students” pleaded guilty Thursday to federal immigration fraud charges.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Hee Sun Shim (also known as Leonard Shim and Leo Shim), 53, of Beverly Hills, the owner and manager of the schools, pleaded guilty Thursday morning 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.
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.
“Immigration fraud schemes such as this allow foreign nationals to circumvent immigration controls and enter, as well as remain in, the United States unlawfully, which compromises national security and the strict set of rules that legitimate immigrants follow,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker.
“These defendants not only undermined the immigration system, but they did a disservice to all of the immigrants following the rules for entry into the U.S.”
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 (HSI), 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.
“As defendant and his co-conspirators knew, these Form I-20s were based on false claims, false statements, and fraud since the purported foreign students had no intention of attending school and were not bona fide students,” according to Shim’s plea agreement.
“Student visas are intended to afford people from around the world an opportunity come to this country to enrich themselves with the vast learning opportunities available here, but this defendant was interested in a different kind of enrichment, his own,” said Joseph Macias, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles.
“HSI will move aggressively against those who compromise the integrity of our nation’s visa system and put America’s security at risk in the process. As this defendant learned, those who abuse the generosity of our foreign student visa program can expect a lesson in criminal justice.”
As a result of Thursday’s guilty pleas, 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.