Fake University of Northern New Jersey Exposes More Than Just Student Visa Fraud
Posted By Derek Johnson on April 12, 2016 at 9:12 am
On the surface, the University of Northern New Jersey looked like just another small college. It was accredited by the State of New Jersey and its website promised “an exceptional education experience.” It had a Facebook page and LinkedIn account where students and faculty were promoted. You could even visit their small administrative office building in Cranford, New Jersey, to chat with school officials and ask questions about enrolling in the next academic school year.
Nonetheless, the University of Northern New Jersey was not just another small college. In fact, it wasn’t a college at all.
Last week, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of 21 individuals for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit. In doing so, the department acknowledged that since 2013, the federal government had been operating a fake university as part of a sting operation to lure brokers and recruiters who are alleged to have fraudulently obtained student visas for more than 1,000 foreign nationals from 26 countries.
In a press conference announcing the arrests, U.S. Attorney for the State of New Jersey Paul Fishman said that when the student visa program operates as it should, the results are “terrific,” allowing foreign nationals the opportunity to attend college in America. However, he denounced “sham visa mills,” which pose as institutions of higher learning but in reality offer no educational value and work with brokers to create a “pay to stay” system that provides visas for “students” who are not actually attending college.
“[T]he undercover agents specifically told each defendant – in conversations that were secretly recorded – that the university was a sham devised to get immigration status for foreign nationals,” Fishman said during a press conference announcing the sting.
How student visa fraud works
Long-term immigration visas to the United States are notoriously difficult to obtain, but the government carves out an exception for foreign nationals who want to study at American schools. It is even harder to get a visa that permits a non-citizen to work legally while they are living in the U.S.
When a student from outside the country wants to attend an American college, they must first obtain a temporary F-1 visa that allows them to stay in the United States as long as they are enrolled in an American university and meet other requirements. To get this visa, they need to obtain another form, an I-20, from the university they attend. This form “certifies that the prospective student has been accepted for and will be required to pursue a full course of study” at the university, according to Fishman.
The F-1 visa allows foreign students to stay in the United States for study and allows the student to work up to 20 hours a week. This, along with the allegation by the government that many of the brokers were told the students were not really attending classes, forms the heart of the case against those charged.
“Attempting to obtain a visa by the willful misrepresentation of a material fact, or fraud, may result in the permanent refusal of a visa or denial of entry into the United States.,” according to the State Department’s website on student travel visas.
The University of Northern New Jersey was designed as one of those “visa mills” and according to Fishman “once word got out” that the administrators were open to fraud, “brokers descended on the school, clamoring to enroll their foreign student clients.”
According to transcripts of recorded conversations provided in the criminal complaints, the defendants were told things like “You know that none of these people are going to class,” “Make sure your clients are good with [this] too, okay,” and “I don’t want anybody, you know, showing up at my doorstep [for] advanced calculus class…we know this is just to maintain status.”
The brokers and undercover agents posing as UNNJ school officials then worked together to create a kickback and payment scheme, charging students thousands of dollars and setting up fake tuition payments for facilitating the exchange.
In some cases, these brokers are alleged to have leveraged these temporary false student visas to obtain H1B visas with American employers. H1B visas allow companies to employ foreign nationals provided they have at least a bachelor’s degree and is generally considered the “Holy Grail” of immigration visas because it allows residence and full-time employment within the United States. In the case of the University of Northern New Jersey, students would have been using the fraudulent “degree” they earned to become eligible for H1B consideration.
The Wild West landscape of higher education
This is not the first time that the federal government has uncovered large visa fraud networks. In 2011, the founder and president of Tri-Valley State University in New Jersey was arrested and charged with multiple counts of student visa fraud. In 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested dozens of students and brokers affiliated with the Florida Language Institute for running a similar scheme.
While these arrests and convictions are typically presented as an immigration matter, there is some evidence that the unregulated landscape of higher education plays a large part in perpetuating the problem. The Association of International Educations (NAFSA), an organization dedicated to “advanc[ing] policies that connect students, scholars, and citizens across borders” released a report in 2011 asserting that the United States is a “nexus” of student visa fraud and bears the “dubious honor of being the diploma mill fraud capital of the world.”
In part, NAFSA blames the structure of the American higher education system, which is ostensibly controlled by the federal government but in reality regulated and enforced by states. This provides incentives for fraudsters to operate in states that have a history of more lax rules or enforcement.
“Like water seeking its lowest level, fraud flows to the states with [the] weakest regulatory structures or enforcement efforts,” writes David Tobenkin, the report’s author.
The rise of questionable online and for-profit universities have somewhat blurred the lines between what is considered a valid educational institution and a scam university. It’s unlikely that accreditation agencies are capable of making a meaningful distinction for consumers. Even universities under investigation by the government for fraud still tend to have their accreditation status renewed, as was the case for Corinthian Colleges months before it shut down. Additionally, while it is not uncommon for private actors to cooperate with law enforcement during sting operations, it is somewhat awkward that the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges presented the very fake University of Northern New Jersey to consumers as a fully accredited institution side by side with other real universities.
It is this unregulated “Wild Wild West” environment where consumers cannot accurately judge what is real and what is fake that has allowed this particular form of visa fraud to flourish. Until meaningful reform happens in areas like accreditation and the process for qualifying universities to accept federal student aid, it is likely we will continue to see more fake schools and sting operations like the University of Northern New Jersey.