The US Department of Justice on Tuesday charged 21 individuals for their involvement in an elaborate student and foreign worker visa scam. The defendants allegedly enrolled more than 1,000 foreign nationals in a fake university that unbeknownst to them was set up by federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ), a purported for-profit college located in Cranford, New Jersey, was created by HSI in September 2013 to enable undercover HSI agents to investigate criminal activities associated with the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), including student visa fraud.
UNNJ featured a convincing website and a promise of “an exceptional educational experience.” However, the fake university had no instructors, educators, or curriculum, and no actual classes or education activities were conducted at the school. It functioned solely as an elaborate front used by federal agents posing as school administrators.
“While the United States fully supports international education, we will vigorously investigate those who seek to exploit the US immigration system,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “As a result of this operation, HSI special agents have successfullyidentified and shut down multiple operations which have abused the student visa program.”
The defendants and individuals pretending to be students knew the school was phony, but were unaware it was part of an undercover investigation by ICE. The college quickly gained a reputation as an institution to help foreigners receive fraudulent students visas to come to the US.
UNNJ represented itself as a school that was authorized to issue a Form I-20, a document which certifies that a foreign national has been accepted to a school as a full-time student. Students can use this form to obtain an F-1 student visa, which allows them to stay in the US while they complete their studies at an SEVP accredited institution.
Most foreign nationals involved in the scheme came from China and India, and were already in the US on non-immigrant student visas.
“Individuals engaged in schemes that would undermine the remarkable educational opportunities afforded to international students represent an affront to those who play by the rules. These unscrupulous individuals undermine the integrity of the immigration system,” said Terence S. Opiola, special agent in charge of HSI Newark. “Our special agents are committed to identifying and addressing fraud in order to better protect the system as a whole.”
Throughout the course of the investigation, the defendants revealed to undercover agents that none of their foreign national clients would participate in real coursework or make progress towards a degree. The sole purpose of enrolling foreign nationals in UNNJ was to fraudulently maintain student visa status in exchange for a commission.
The defendants also facilitated the creation of hundreds of false student records, including transcripts, attendance records, and diplomas, which were purchased by their foreign national conspirators for the purpose of deceiving immigration authorities.
In other instances, the defendants used UNNJ to fraudulently obtain work authorization and work visas for their clients.
“‘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,” US Attorney Fishman said.
The charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and making a false statement each carry a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The charges of conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit and H1-B Visa fraud each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.