New York – The University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ), in leafy, small town Cranford, appeared to be like any other college: It had a website with smiling professors, a Facebook page, and a crest featuring the Latin words “Humanus, Scientia, Integritas.” It promised “a high quality” American education to students from around the world.
However, there was a twist: Unlike other colleges, it was staffed entirely by Homeland Security agents. The agents spent over two and-a-half years painstakingly creating this fake university. The idea was to bust a scam of students being brought into the US fraudulently.
The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that the elaborate plan had worked. The storefront school tripped up 21 people (at least 10 of them are Indian) on charges that they conspired to help over 1,000 foreign students – a significant number of them reportedly from India — keep or obtain student visas.
“Today’s arrests, which were made possible by the great undercover work of our law enforcement partners, stopped 21 brokers, recruiters and employers across multiple states who recklessly exploited our immigration system for financial gain,” US Attorney Paul J Fishman said in a statement.
“Pay-to-Stay schemes not only damage our perception of legitimate student and foreign worker visa programs, they also pose a very real threat to national security,” said Fishman.
Most from China and India
Most of the foreigners who benefited from the scam were from China and India and were already in the U.S. on student visas. Recruiting companies and business entities located in New Jersey, California, Illinois, New York and Virginia, helped 1,076 “students” — maintain their F-1 student visa status in the U.S on the pretext that they attended full time degree courses at UNNJ.
During the sting operation, recruiters told undercover Homeland Security investigations agents that none of their foreign clients would attend any actual courses or earn credits as the rules require. The middlemen under arrest paid the undercover agents running the school thousands of dollars to produce fake transcripts and diplomas that made it look as if the “students” were enrolled at UNNJ, federal prosecutors said. This helped them to maintain their student visa status without having to actually go to class.
“This was just another stop on the ‘pay-to-stay’ tour,” Fishman said.
Officials said hundreds of Indian and Chinese students have been identified and will be dealt with by immigration authorities — meaning they could face deportation — but won’t be prosecuted. Even so, they will end up losing not just their jobs but also a lot of money they would have paid agents and recruiters to get to the US. Most of the students, will ultimately have their visas revoked. Some of them had used these visas to get jobs at Facebook, Apple and even the Army, reported “The New York Times” and ABC News.
Chasing down fake student visas in bogus universities is a major priority for the authorities. In January 19, 2011, there was a hue and cry when Tri-Valley University, housed in a single building in Pleasanton, California, was shut down and labeled a “sham university” by immigration officials. Over 1,000 foreign students, hundreds of them from India and China, were stripped of their student status and deported.
Lost their savings
Indian students said they thought they were enrolled in a legitimate college and lost their family savings which they had paid upfront to Tri-Valley University in tuition fees. They claimed they were duped by college recruiters and tried desperately to transfer to other U.S. schools after their first semester. The US authorities had allowed some of the nearly 1800 Indian students who were caught in that scam to transfer to other schools.
The Tri-Valley case sparked protests in India as U.S. authorities clamped ankle monitors on hapless students from India who were cheated out of an education. It is one of the largest U.S. school fraud scams to date. The school’s founder and president, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, used over $5.6 million she made in the scam to buy real estate, Mercedes Benz cars and multiple homes.
At least a dozen schools have been shut down or raided by U.S. federal authorities in recent years over allegations of visa fraud. These “diploma mills” admit foreign students but offer little or no instruction. In March this year, federal agents cracked down on Prodee University, located in Los Angeles. It is affiliated with three other schools: Walter Jay M.D. Institute and American College of Forensic Studies in Los Angeles and Likie Fashion and Technology College in nearby Alhambra.
However, this is the first time that the Feds themselves have created a fake university to fix vulnerabilities in the F-1 student visa system.
The Indian Embassy in Washington, which will now have to deal with the fallout of this scam and the deportation of possibly hundreds of students, is not talking. An official said that the Embassy was in touch with the US government.