Immigration and Customs Enforcement has announced the “University of Northern New Jersey,” UNNJ, had been a fictional sting operation for the last two-and-a-half years.
UNNJ offered foreign students the ability to obtain a student visa and work in the United States without having to attend classes. All they were required to do was pay a broker somewhere between $3,000 and $12,000.
The school, run by Homeland Security Investigations Newark, featured a realistic website and a real address located in Cranford, New Jersey. In all, 21 people referred to as brokers, recruiters, and employers were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and alien harboring. The brokers were all part of an underground network of recruiters who operated throughout the country as middlemen between students and these types of schools known as visa mills.
In addition to the brokers, 25 students were listed as anonymous co-conspirators, as many officials believed they knew they were committing fraud when they did not attend class. A total of 1,076 foreign students were required to appear in immigration court, with possible outcomes including deportation or a lifetime ban from the United States, within days of the announcement.
“They were 100 percent fully aware,” said Alvin Phillips, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “All purported students are recorded at some point or another fully going along with the pay-to-stay scheme.”
According to Phillips, both audio and video recordings exist showing students calling or visiting the president’s office in New Jersey. He had personally witnessed a number of these conversations and hearing students state that they were aware the university did not offer any classes.
However, multiple students denied those claims during interviews, insisting they were in fact innocent bystanders who had been lied to by both the brokers and the government. They went on to say that any efforts to find out the validity of the university or transfer to another school were brushed aside by brokers. Other students discussed what they called active deception by the government, in which they had an in-person meeting with the university president, received a letter saying they could work in place of attending classes, or read Twitter messages stating classes had been cancelled as a result of bad weather.
Some students said brokers had told them they could earn credit hours immediately in exchange for work experience through a program called Curricular Practical Training, which did not require any classes to be taken, report Liz Robbins for The New York Times.
All students who had enrolled in UNNJ had entered the United States legally, earning degrees from schools including the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and Fordham. However, upon graduation, these students need to find a way to stay in the country. A program known as Operation Practical Training allows foreign college graduates to remain in the country for between 12 and 36 months depending on what field they are in. Companies also have the ability to apply for a temporary skilled worker visa, known as an H-1B, for employees. However, close to 230,000 people apply for these on an annual basis, with only 85,000 visas handed out.
ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced it will be terminating the initial and active student records of nonimmigrant students who attended the school. Close to 60 former students who had their records transferred to other schools will also have their records terminated. Students will be notified of this by mail and will be given the option of applying to US Citizenship and Immigration Services for reinstatement. Those who choose not to do so or are denied will be asked to leave the country immediately or seek other options.