Posted on November 17, 2004

Federal Authorities Charge Four In Los Angeles-Area Visa Fraud

AP, Nov. 17

LOS ANGELES—Four people, including a local Iranian TV and radio personality, were arrested and charged with allegedly filing false employment visa applications on behalf of hundreds of foreigners seeking entry into the United States, officials said Tuesday.

Henry Hossein Haghighi Heguman, 59, of West Hills was described in the federal criminal complaint as the leader of the scheme. Haghighi has regularly appeared on local Iranian TV and radio shows, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

Haghighi was arrested Saturday along with Bita Logham Hoffman, 39, of Carlsbad; Farideh Mir, 58, and Grace Houra Shahraz Edison, 49, both of Los Angeles.

The investigation started in April 2002 after customs agents received several tips from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers at the California center where employment-based visa petitions are processed.

Investigators discovered that Haghighi and his associates were charging their primarily Iranian clients $8,000 to $30,000 to obtain fraudulent employment-based visas, the government alleged.

“This kind of fraud undermines the integrity of our nation’s legal immigration system and generates millions of dollars of illicit income for those involved,” said Loraine Brown, special agent-in-charge of customs investigations in Los Angeles. She said the agency would target not only the criminal organizations behind such schemes, but anyone also who profits from them.

Employment-based visas typically are issued when a business in the United States needs someone to fill a specific job and can’t find a qualified employee in the U.S. labor pool.

The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint was unsealed late Monday when the defendants made their first court appearance. It described how one man hired Haghighi in 1999 to help him emigrate to the United States. Haghighi suggested the man immigrate as a pizza cook, though the man had no experience working in restaurants or in the food industry.

Haghighi allegedly persuaded a pizza parlor in Glendale to file an employment-based visa application on the man’s behalf, authorities said.

In most cases, the foreign aliens who immigrated to the United States as part of the scheme never went to work for the petitioning business.

Investigators examined more than 550 employment-based visa applications filed by Haghighi and his associates from May 1993 and early 2003 and compared them to tax withholding records maintained by the state. The comparison showed the petitioning businesses reporting wages for only 13 percent of the aliens who entered the United States on the employment-based visas.

Five confidential informants posing as aliens seeking to immigrate to the United States also confirmed that fraudulent applications were being filed by Haghighi and his associates, according to court documents.

More than 200 Southern California businesses, ranging from medical clinics to auto parts stores, served as petitioners for Haghighi and his associates, authorities said.

Hoffman, a partner in a law firm, appeared in federal court Monday in San Diego County and was placed under $500,000 bond, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE. The federal agency is seeking to have her case transferred to Los Angeles.

Mir, who is an employee at Hoffman’s firm, and Edison, a businesswoman, made an initial appearance Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles and were due back Tuesday. No information was immediately available on their Tuesday court appearance.

Haghighi also made an initial court appearance Monday, but his bond hearing was continued until Thursday afternoon, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. A telephone message left after business hours Tuesday with Haghighi’s defense attorney, Janet Levine, was not immediately returned.