In a first-of-its-kind sting operation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established a sham school in September 2013. The University of Northern New Jersey offered no classes or instructors. But for a price it offered to shady recruiters an opportunity to obtain fraudulent student visas for foreign customers.
On April 4, federal prosecutors announced the arrest of 21 individuals, mostly recruiters, for conspiring to help more than 1000 foreigners fraudulently keep or obtain F-1 student visas over the past 2½ years.
How was the sham school so convincing? For one thing, ICE got the State of New Jersey to recognize UNNJ, and got the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges accredit it, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The school also had a website (www.unnj.edu, now defunct) and Facebook page promising an “exceptional” education for foreign students wishing to study in the U.S.
The charges brought against the 21 defendants are conspiracy to commit visa fraud and to harbor aliens for profit, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Most are reportedly naturalized citizens of Chinese and Indian backgrounds.
Most of the foreigners who benefited from the scam were from China and India and were already in the U.S., federal prosecutors said. The brokers and students allegedly paid the agents, posing as corrupt administrators, thousands of dollars to produce paperwork that made it look as if the foreigners were enrolled. That enabled the “students” to maintain their visa status without having to go to class.
Specifically, the school issued to each foreigner a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status — for Academic and Language Students. The students then used the I-20 to get an F-1 student visa, or to change to or extend their F-1 student status within the U.S. Some students’ I-20s included the school’s authorization to engage in curricular practical training (CPT). Some of the brokers allegedly also purchased fraudulent transcripts, diplomas, and student ID cards from UNNJ. In some cases, those were used to apply for H-1B visas. Brokers were able to outsource some of the foreign nationals as full-time employees with numerous U.S.-based employers (including Apple, Facebook, Morgan Stanley, and the U.S. military), also in exchange for commission fees, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Parts of conversations between defendants and UNNJ “staff” make clear how transparent the alleged fraud was. Zitong Wen and Chaun Kit Yuen, for example, are two Chinese nationals residing in California. They allegedly contacted UNNJ in 2014 to offer their recruiting services:
“You know that none of these people are going to class,” an undercover agent allegedly told Yuen. “[J]ust, you know, between us, you know, you’re good with that right? Make sure your clients are good with it too, okay? I don’t want anybody, you know, showing up at my doorstep thinking they’re gonna be in my … advanced calculus class or anything like that. … That’s not gonna happen, right? We know this is just to maintain status.”
“Yeah, yeah, oh yeah,” Yeun allegedly said. “We’ve been doing this for years. [N]o worries.”
In recent years, federal authorities have brought prosecuted in connection with other schools, referred to as “visa mills,” that provide I-20s without requiring students to attend class. These are sometimes referred to as “pay-to-stay” schemes. But UNNJ is the first instance of authorities actually creating a school as a sting operation.
Were the “students” co-conspirators or were they victims of the scam? That may depend on the particular facts of each individual’s situation, such as what the recruiter told the individual; whether he or she received a tuition bill and paid tuition; whether the individual attempted to enroll in classes; what steps he or she took upon learning there were no classes available; whether the individual paid for or accepted false transcripts and diplomas; and whether the individual subsequently told employers or immigration authorities that he or she studied at UNNJ.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the students do not face criminal charges but their student status will be terminated and they may be deported, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In certain cases, relief such as reinstatement to student status may be possible.