It was little more than a storefront — manned by undercover agents posing as corrupt school administrators — but over several years the University of Northern New Jersey flushed out more than 1,000 foreigners seeking fraudulent student and foreign worker visas to unlawfully stay and work in this country, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said Tuesday.
Fishman unveiled the sting operation — the first of its kind involving a sham school set up by agents — at a news conference in Newark after authorities in New Jersey and Washington State arrested 21 brokers, recruiters and employers for their alleged involvement in what Fishman termed “a wide-ranging scheme to defraud … the United States in connection with student visas.”
The defendants, including a 54-year-old woman from Hackensack, mostly are naturalized citizens of Chinese and Indian backgrounds. They are accused of unlawfully attempting to obtain student visas and foreign worker visas for foreigners from 26 countries, Fishman said.
“As the complaints allege, these defendants arranged to obtain visas by having individuals enroll in a fake university,” Fishman said. “Unfortunately for them, that fake university was run by undercover agents of the Department of Homeland Security.”
None of the more than 1,000 students linked to the scam will be prosecuted, Fishman said, but their student visas will be revoked and they will likely be sent home.
The investigation targeted an illegal practice known as “pay to stay,” in which schools are set up as “nothing more than sham visa mills,” Fishman said. In exchange for payment, they provide certificates of eligibility that purport to show a foreigner has been accepted as a full-time student, allowing the person to then obtain a visa to enter or remain in the United States while pursuing an academic degree, he said.
To catch these recruiters and brokers, Fishman said, Homeland Security Investigations set up its own sham school, called the University of Northern New Jersey, in a building in Cranford. “Its only employees were undercover HSI agents, posing as corrupt administrators,” he said. The school had no instructors or educators, no curriculum and no actual classes, Fishman said.
“Once word got out, brokers descended on the school, clamoring to enroll their foreign student clients,” Fishman said.
The recruiters were paid fees ranging from about $1,000 to $1,500, authorities said, for supplying fraudulent paperwork.
During the investigation, agents identified hundreds of foreign nationals, primarily from China and India, who had previously entered the United States on a student visa to attend other, accredited, schools. Through businesses located in New Jersey, New York, California, Illinois and Virginia, the defendants enabled 1,076 of these foreigners — all of whom were willing participants in the scheme — to fraudulently maintain their non-immigrant status in the U.S., on the pretense that they were continuing their studies at the university in Cranford, authorities said.
In conversations that were secretly recorded, Fishman said the undercover agents specifically told each defendant “that the university was a sham, devised to get immigration status for foreign nationals.”
After one of the defendants was so advised, Fishman said, he replied, “We’ve been doing this for years. No worries.”
Just about every defendant paid the undercover agents thousands of dollars for fake documents, including phony academic transcripts, attendance sheets, student ID cards and diplomas, for their clients. Such fraudulent documents were then submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or the Department of State to obtain immigration benefits, Fishman said.
Some of the defendants had their clients make payments to the university disguised as tuition and received kickbacks or commissions from the university, Fishman said. “Other defendants charged their clients thousands of dollars and then the defendants made sham tuition payments directly to the university,” he said. In one case, a defendant gave an undercover agent a $7,000 watch as tuition fees for seven purported students, he said.
Beyond the pay-to-stay scheme, several defendants were also involved in fraudulent efforts to obtain visas that allow foreign nationals to lawfully work in the United States, Fishman said. These defendants paid the undercover agents thousands of dollars to create phony documents relating to non-existent information technology projects at the university, such as software development. The phony documents were then used to “trick” immigration officials to issue work visas to the defendants’ clients.
“The actions by these suspects, the people who were in charge of recruiting these students, could have presented a threat to the national security of the United States, as they did not know, nor did they care one whit … if [their clients] had any ill intent against the United States,” said Sarah R. SaldaÃ±a, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who joined Fishman at the news conference.
Fishman said agents carefully checked out the purported students to make sure none posed a threat.
Among those arrested Tuesday were seven people from New Jersey, including Shahjadi M. Parvin, 54, of Hackensack. Accused of being a recruiter, she was charged in a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit. She could face up to five years in prison on the first charge and 10 years on the second charge, if convicted.
The complaint alleged Parvin agreed to pay the school $4,000 for each of her clients’ tuition, false immigration documents, false transcripts and diplomas, and that she planned to charge an equal sum for her end.