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