Officials say the fake campus of the University of Northern New Jersey helped federal officials catch 21 suspects who are now accused of various charges of visa fraud. The U.S. Attorney's Office announced the arrests on Tuesday, April 5. (Reuters)

The current state of some American institutions of higher learning, flush with debates about trigger warnings, sexual assault and affirmative action, have left some critics wondering whether college students have time to learn anything anymore. But on the campus of the University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ), nestled in idyllic Cranford about 20 miles from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, no students were concerned with such matters — because the school, as authorities just announced, was an elaborate front used by undercover federal agents to trap people illegally trying to score fake visas for foreign nationals.

Now, the UNNJ sting is over, but leaves quite a wake: the indictments of 21 “brokers, recruiters, and employers from across the United States who allegedly conspired with more than 1,000 foreign nationals,” as the Department of Justice explained, to keep them in the country under the auspices of an ersatz alma mater. Some who purchased fake papers ended up working at Facebook or working for the U.S. military, as ABC reported.

“‘Pay to Stay’ schemes not only damage our perception of legitimate student and foreign worker visa programs, they also pose a very real threat to national security,” New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said in a statement. “Today’s arrests, which were made possible by the great undercover work of our law enforcement partners, stopped 21 brokers, recruiters and employers across multiple states who recklessly exploited our immigration system for financial gain.”

In the state that’s home to Princeton and Rutgers, among many other hallowed halls of scholarship, UNNJ looked quite real. At least, it did on its website and Facebook page — the legitimate-looking accoutrements, since scrubbed from the Internet, of any lesser-known school hoping to compete with the Ivy League. The fake university’s fake social media presence appeared only to be short a fake Twitter handle.

“An exceptional educational experience!” UNNJ’s website proclaimed. “The University of Northern New Jersey promises a high quality American education to students from around the world. This education is based on a foundation of intense academics and real world business experiences set in beautiful Cranford, New Jersey and the surrounding northern New Jersey and New York areas.”

But, by mutual agreement with the allegedly corrupt individuals representing “students” from 26 countries who hoped to take advantage of the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program, no actual educational experience was on offer.

“Although UNNJ was physically located here in New Jersey, in a real building in Cranford, the university was not a real school,” Fishman’s prepared remarks noted. “Its only employees were undercover … agents posing as corrupt administrators. The school had no instructors or educators; it had no curriculum; and no actual classes or educational activities ever occurred there.”

Under the exchange program, foreign students enroll at a school able to issue a “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status — for Academic and Language Students,” or Form I-20. Students then use this form to get an F-1 student visa, which allows them to stay in the country while studying. Alas, some exploit our country’s immigration system for their own profit.

“In many instances, the schools are nothing more than sham visa mills,” Fishman noted. “They have no curriculum, no classes, no instructors, and no real students. These purported schools and their corrupt administrators simply give out I-20 forms in exchange for payment. This illegal practice is known as ‘pay to stay’ because foreign nationals pay money to brokers and recruiters, like the defendants, to be enrolled in a school for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status as a student — but with no intention of or interest in going to class or making any progress toward an academic degree.”

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 now charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit. Their indictment said they contacted UNNJ in 2014 “to offer their services as recruiting agents for purported foreign students.” But the alleged conversations were a little unusual.

“You know that none of these people are going to class,” an undercover agent allegedly told Yeun. “[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.”

The indictment reported Yeun laughed.

“Yeah, yeah, oh yeah,” Yeun allegedly said. “We’ve been doing this for years. [N]o worries.”

The purported scam was profitable.

“Some defendants had their foreign national clients make payments to the university – disguised as tuition – and then the defendants 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. In one case, a defendant gave an undercover agent a $7,000 watch as ‘tuition fees’ for seven purported students.”

And the defendants, authorities said, went to great lengths to make a fake education look like a real one. One suggested UNNJ set up phony classrooms and have her clients sign fake attendance sheets in different colored inks to make it look like the sheets had been signed on different days. And some used UNNJ to get work visas for their clients as well.

“To further complete the illusion, the complaints allege that virtually every defendant knowingly purchased fake documents from the undercover university, including fraudulent transcripts with made up classes and grades; diplomas; attendance sheets; student ID cards; sham receipts; and even phony parking passes,” Fishman noted.

The defendants — seven from New York, seven from New Jersey, five from California, one from Illinois and one from Georgia — face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each charge of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and making a false statement, the DOJ said; the charges of conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit and visa fraud each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.

“All the defendants were pretty stunned about the charges,” Michael Horn — whose client, Tajesh Kodali, 44, pleaded not guilty — told the New York Times. “They’re hopeful the truth will come out.”

The students, many from India and China, do not face charges, but may be deported.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office dinged U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), saying the agency “has not developed a process to identify and analyze program risks” since getting oversight of the exchange program in 2003.

“ICE has not consistently implemented existing controls, in accordance with internal control standards and fraud prevention practices, to verify schools’ legitimacy and eligibility during initial [exchange] certification and once schools begin accepting foreign students,” the GAO wrote. “Specifically, ICE officials do not consistently verify certain evidence initially submitted by schools in lieu of accreditation.”

After the indictments, ICE’s director said “pay to stay” is a national security threat.

“It goes without saying that international students are a very valuable asset to our country,” ICE Director Sarah Saldana said in a statement. “They enrich our universities, our economy, and our society by sharing their diverse perspectives, skills and experience. But, as these cases show, the program can be exploited and abused.”

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