Proposed Settlement in University of Northern New Jersey Class Action

A federal judge has given preliminary approval to a settlement between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and foreign nationals who enrolled in University of Northern New Jersey, a fake school created by the agency as part of an immigration sting.

The proposed settlement would resolve claims that ICE violated the due process protections of the Fifth Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act during an operation that involved setting up a fictitious school called the University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ) to catch recruiters who sought to abuse the U.S. immigration system for financial gain.

Upon revealing the sting operation in 2016, the government announced arrests of 21 educational recruiters accused of conspiring with more than 1,000 foreign nationals to fraudulently maintain student visas at the fake school as a means to gain permission to stay—and work—in the United States.

The foreign “students” enrolled at UNNJ were not criminally charged, but the government terminated their visa statuses in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the federal database used to maintain information about international students, leaving them without valid student visas.

The case is Yi Dong et al. v. Tae D. Johnson et al., case number 2:17-cv-02092, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey before Judge Esther Salas.

The Notice of Proposed Settlement explains that you are covered by the proposed settlement if “you were ever enrolled in” UNNJ. The benefits of the settlement are as follows:

The Government will not rely on your UNNJ enrollment to find you inadmissible or deportable. The Government will not rely on UNNJ enrollment to find you inadmissible2 to the United States for committing fraud or making a material misrepresentation, or deportable from the United States for failing to maintain lawful status, unless the Government has evidence of violations of the law or of your ineligibility apart from your UNNJ enrollment.3 If the Government intends to rely on such evidence relating to UNNJ to deny you immigration benefits, it must provide you with a copy of the evidence and an opportunity to rebut it.

2 The Settlement defines “UNNJ enrollment” to mean “initial enrollment in UNNJ and any matters, actions, materials, statements, or other information arising from, relating to, made from, or obtained through that enrollment.” However, “[t]he mere fact that a matter, action, material, statement, or other information arose or was created after such UNNJ enrollment, based on the date of such subsequent matter, action, material, statement, or other information
alone, is not enough to demonstrate that it was ‘arising from, relating to, made from, or obtained through’ that enrollment.”

3 Such evidence includes, but is not limited to: (a) affirmative misrepresentations made to any government official about full completion of a degree program/graduation at UNNJ; (b) written statements signed by a class member which assert that the class member attended classes at UNNJ (but not including any misrepresentations contained in documents allegedly created by UNNJ such as transcripts or attendance sheets); (c) material misrepresentations about employment history at any time, before or after UNNJ enrollment; (d) material misrepresentations about marital status or any other material biographic details or identifiers; or (e) evidence pertaining to a limited number of class members who engaged in “broker conduct,” as defined in the Settlement Agreement.

The Government will not deny you immigration benefits based on your UNNJ enrollment. If the Government has previously denied you immigration benefits based on your UNNJ enrollment, those denials will not negatively impact any future application for immigration benefits you may file.

You can retract any UNNJ-related misrepresentations made before UNNJ’s closure. If you made a misrepresentation relating to UNNJ before UNNJ’s closure on April 5, 2016, the Government will not consider that misrepresentation to be “material” (and therefore will not find you inadmissible based on the misrepresentation) if you retract or correct the misrepresentation in a later filing, application, or interview.

If you are in removal proceedings or a final order of removal was issued against you, DHS will move to dismiss your removal proceedings.

The action DHS will take is summarized in this table:

If…Then…
You are currently in removal (deportation) proceedings.DHS will file a motion to dismiss those proceedings within 120 days of the date the Court grants final approval of the Settlement.
A final order of removal was entered against you.DHS will move to reopen and dismiss your removal proceedings within 120 days of the date the Court grants final approval of the Settlement.

If an immigration judge denies DHS’s motion to reopen or to dismiss your removal proceedings, then DHS will appeal that denial to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and you should not oppose DHS’s appeal.

(If you were granted voluntary departure and departed the United States during the time allotted, DHS will not move to reopen the grant of voluntary departure).

The Government will not consider you to have accrued unlawful presence or to be out of lawful status during a defined time period. The Government will not consider you to have accrued unlawful presence for the time period described in the table below. In addition, you will not be considered ineligible for immigration benefits that require maintenance of lawful immigration status (or to be in lawful status at the time the application is filed) for matters arising during that time period.

This means that, in all future applications for immigration benefits, you will be considered to have been in lawful status during the time period listed below:

If…Then…
You are not currently in removal(deportation) proceedings and were never issued a final order of removal on account of your enrollment in UNNJ.The time period runs from the date you enrolled in UNNJ through 180 days after the date the Court approves the Settlement.
You are currently in removal
(deportation) proceedings or were issued a final order of removal on account of your enrollment in UNNJ.
The time period runs from the date you enrolled in UNNJ through 180 days after the date your removal proceedings are dismissed pursuant to DHS’s motion.

DHS will expedite applications for immigration benefits filed during the time period described above. Applications for immigration benefits that are filed within the applicable time period described above (or which are pending when the Settlement is approved by the Court) will be adjudicated on an expedited basis as follows:

o DHS will take initial action on such applications within 120 days of filing (or 120 days after the Court approves the Settlement for applications that are already pending an initial action).

o If DHS issues a Request for Evidence (“RFE”) or a Notice of Intent to Deny (“NOID”), it will take further adjudicative action within 90 days of DHS’s receipt of your response to the RFE or NOID.
Such expedited adjudication will not apply to applications for immigration benefits filed after the time period described above. This expedited adjudication also does not apply to applications for asylum.

You can apply for reinstatement to student status if you are admitted to a new school and meet other requirements. DHS will apply special adjudication procedures to applications for reinstatement to student status (Form I-539) that are pending when the Court approves the Settlement or that are filed within 180 days thereafter. DHS will adjudicate such applications without regard to the standard five-month filing window, your previous lack of status, or a prior denial of reinstatement. In addition, the requirements of 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(16)(i)(A) (relating to maintenance of lawful status) and § 214.2(f)(16)(i)(F) (requiring that any violation of status be beyond the applicant’s control) will be deemed satisfied for such applications. However, your application still must include a valid Form I-20 issued from a qualifying educational institution and comply with all other requirements for reinstatement. Additionally, reinstatements are a discretionary immigration benefit. DHS can consider any misconduct or violations of a class member before or after UNNJ enrollment (but not including UNNJ enrollment) in the exercise of discretion on a case-by-case basis.

Rescinding of status-termination letters. Many class members received letters in April 2016 advising that their SEVIS records and I-20 forms issued by UNNJ were set to “Terminated status” on account of their “fraudulent enrollment” in UNNJ. These letters will be treated as rescinded, will be without continuing legal force or effect, and will not be used to take adverse action against class members.

Modification of records and investigative databases. DHS will modify certain Government databases to remove references to “fraud,” including any findings of fraud-related inadmissibility, that arose from UNNJ enrollment. These database changes will also reflect that:

o UNNJ enrollment alone cannot be used to find that a class member is inadmissible for fraud or material misrepresentation;

o UNNJ enrollment cannot be used to find that a class member is deportable for failure to remain in lawful status; and

o Prior immigration-benefit denials, inadmissibility findings, or deportability findings based on a class member’s UNNJ enrollment will not prevent future immigration-benefit approvals.

Law360 (subscription required) reports that UNNJ was set up by ICE as part of “Operation Triple Lindy” for the purpose of targeting recruiters who fraudulently facilitated student visas — mainly through the F-1 visa program, which allows foreign nationals to be in the U.S. if they are enrolled at a legitimate educational institution.

The university did not have classes, curriculum or employ teachers, according to court filings. Instead, federal agents set up the school as an accredited institution; got it listed by the New Jersey Department of Education; and equipped it with a website, social media presence, and even an active president.

In their suit originally filed in 2016 the students asserted that the government found them to be engaged in visa fraud without hearing evidence they were unwitting victims of the scammers the authorities were seeking to take down. They asked a New Jersey federal court to bar the government from determining they committed fraud by enrolling in the fake school, according to court records.

The district court rejected the students’ claims. But the students appealed to the Third Circuit, which rebuffed the government’s argument that termination of the students’ visa status was not a final agency action subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The appeals court’s 2019 also found fault with the lower court’s determination that “the case was not ripe for review” because pending visa status reinstatement proceedings “could still provide administrative relief.”

The proposed settlement came after the Third Circuit sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

A hearing will be held May 2, 2022, at which the judge will decide whether to approve the proposed settlement.

The notice of the proposed settlement informs class members:

Because the Settlement involves complex immigration issues, you may wish to consult with a lawyer to better understand how the Settlement will affect you individually…. Plaintiffs’ Counsel cannot answer questions about individual cases. If you wish for a lawyer to review your individual case and explain to you how the Settlement might impact you individually, you must hire that lawyer separately.

If you need advice about how this settlement may affect you, please feel free to schedule an appointment with Chodorow Law Offices.

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