The arrests, which were made on Tuesday, followed a three year long investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in which agents ran a bogus institution called the University of Northern New Jersey, created in 2013.
The perpetrators helped approximately 1,076 foreign nationals to come to the US and enrol as students at UNNJ, through a “pay-to-stay” scheme, in which they paid education agents to be enrolled at the bogus institution for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status.
“Brokers descended on the school, clamoring to enrol their foreign student clients”
The university was physically located in Cranford, New Jersey but was staffed by undercover HSI officers posing as college administrators.
At a press conference on Tuesday, United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said that once word broke out about UNNJ, “brokers descended on the school, clamoring to enrol their foreign student clients”.
In secretly recorded conversations, HSI agents told the defendants that the university was a sham and did not conduct any educational activities nor did it employ any teaching staff.
One of the defendents, Alvin Yeun, responded by saying “we’ve been doing this for years, no worries”.
Fishman said the agents made thousands of dollars through commission on tuition payments from the students while others charged their clients directly on top of sham tuition payments.
Those arrested allegedly produced, and also paid the school staff thousands of dollars to produce fraudulent paperwork to deceive immigration authorities in order to allow the foreign nationals to stay in the country on H1-B working visas.
Fishman said that “virtually every defendant” knowingly purchased fake documents from the undercover university, including fraudulent transcripts with made up classes and grades, diplomas, attendance sheets, student ID cards, sham receipts, and even phony parking passes.
“In the majority of instances, the undercover agents emailed blank templates to the defendants, who then – with their clients – filled in the phony information (such as classes and grades for transcripts) and emailed these false documents back to the agents,” he explained.
“The agents then placed the university’s letterhead on the forms, printed and signed them, and emailed them back to the defendants.”
If convicted, the perpetrators could face heavy fines and jail time.
Three of the agents in question were ICEF-screened and according to the organisation had recently passed the obligatory bi-annual screening and had at least four positive references provided by a number of well-known American institutions.
In a statement to The PIE News, ICEF said the agents concerned will be investigated and the appropriate action will be taken.
ICEF also thanked the Department of Homeland Security for their attention to the matter, and said that they have always been “vehemently opposed” to unethical and illegal activity in the industry.
“We will continue to improve agent quality in our industry through screening and training”
“We will continue to improve agent quality in our industry through screening and training, and we stand by the many thousands of professional and ethical agents that attend our events each year,” the company said.
“We also believe strongly in open and honest dialogue, so no further comment can be made until after we have spoken with the agencies in question.”
The foreign nationals, of which the majority were said to be from China and India, originally entered the country to attend other schools authorised by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program on F-1 (student, non-immigrant) visas. The perpetrators enabled them to keep their non-immigrant visa status fraudulently by enroling them at UNNJ.
The student records have been terminated by SEVP, and the ICE said in a statement that approximately 60 more active records of former UNNJ students, who have since transferred to other schools, will also be set to terminated status.
“Any student terminated as a result of his or her current or previous enrolment at UNNJ and chooses not to file for reinstatement or has their reinstatement application denied must depart the country immediately,” said ICE.
Sarah Saldaña, director of ICE said at the press conference: “It goes without saying that international students are a very valuable asset to our country. They enrich our universities, our economy, and our society by sharing their diverse perspectives, skills and experience but, as these cases show, the programme can be exploited and abused.”
She said the “pay-to-stay” schemes damage public perception of legitimate students and foreign workers but also pose a threat to national security. “If undiscovered, the consequences can be really risky,” she charged.
The 21 arrests were made across the country, in the states of New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois and Georgia.
Conspiring to commit visa fraud and making a false statement each have a $250,000 fine and a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Conspiring to harbour aliens for profit and H1-B visa fraud each also have a $250,000, as well as a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.