The university was a sham, set up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to catch brokers illegally offering fraud student visas for cash. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Federal immigration authorities have reached a potential settlement with hundreds of foreign nationals who enrolled at the University of Northern New Jersey, a fake university and elaborate scam set up by the federal government to crack down on student visa fraud.
The proposed settlement agreement, which needs final approval from a judge, would settle a class-action lawsuit filed by migrants who say they unknowingly enrolled at the sham university that was created as part of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting, according to court documents.
The government would pay $450,000 in legal fees and not admit to any wrongdoing under the proposed deal.
Plaintiffs who saw their visas overturned after the sting was revealed may have their removal proceedings canceled by the Department of Homeland Security and be allowed to apply for new visas, or seek reinstatement to attend another school, if the deal is approved.
A court hearing is scheduled for May 2 at the U.S. District Court in Newark. An ICE spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The sting operation was revealed in 2016 by then-U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who announced the arrests of nearly two dozen brokers who recruited people to enroll in the fake university beginning in 2013 for the purpose of getting the “students” fraudulent visas. The brokers knew classes didn’t exist.
Most students claim they didn’t know the process to get the F-1 visa — student visas allowing people to complete their studies and travel freely outside the country — was illegal, according to their lawsuit. Still, the government terminated the immigration status of most of the foreign nationals, forcing them to return to their home countries or remain here to fight the immigration charges.
At the time of the arrests, the government said the operation was an attempt to combat visa fraud. A high-profile sham university case in 2011 resulted in more than 1,500 students, largely from India, seeking student visas for the uncredited (and now shuttered) Tri-Valley University without knowing the visas were fraudulent.
Elizabeth Montano, attorney for the New Jersey students, said the enrollees had no idea the visas they obtained were fraudulent. Students who visited the alleged school’s Cranford office spoke with agents disguised as administrators and secretaries.
“It was very hard for them to discover it was fake, because the government went to great lengths to make it seem like an institution,” she said in a phone interview from her office in Florida.
No learning took place at the university, no professors were hired, and no classes offered. The website has been scrubbed, but archived pages show it claimed to offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs in subjects ranging from business to health care management, and was advertised as an accredited school by the New Jersey Department of Education.
According to the lawsuit, the school even maintained a social media account, posting when it was closed for inclement weather or sharing wedding photos after two “alumni” were married. Government agents even made shirts for UNNJ “students.”
“The only thing lacking appears to be a reference to UNNJ’s men’s or women’s basketball team in the Final Four,” a judge wrote in a 2019 opinion.
ICE shut down the school in 2016 after the academic brokers were arrested for fraud, and immediately terminated all related student F-1 visas based on “fraudulent enrollment” at UNNJ, the suit states.
The plaintiffs say they were effectively collateral damage, and at one point federal prosecutors admitted the plaintiffs were victims of fraud.
Most of the 1,076 foreign nationals voluntarily left the country to avoid immigration proceedings or are currently awaiting hearings for an order of removal, Montano said. The fraudulent enrollment at UNNJ is a stain on their record, keeping them from applying to other U.S. schools or forcing them out of the country they worked hard to come to, she said.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs’ due process rights were violated and says ICE improperly disregarded the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires federal agencies to provide legitimate reasons for their actions, in this case the overturning of their visas.
The case, first filed in Nov. 2016, was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in New Jersey in 2017. Montano appealed to the Third Circuit, which overturned the dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings in August 2019.
Montano said while the government refuses to accept any liability for the troubles it’s caused to more than a thousand migrants, the potential of a settlement is a “beacon of hope that there are people out there who will fight for immigrants who have been wrongly harmed.”
She said the government did not provide a list of how many foreign nationals remain in the country or returned to their home nation, or how many reside in New Jersey. She said of the 100 people she’s been in contact with for the settlement, many live in or close to the Garden State.
This is the second known fake university set up by the U.S. government in an attempt to catch visa fraud. Authorities revealed in 2019 the University of Farmington in Michigan was also a sham operation, which led to the arrests of 161 students and the deportation of 600 people.
“It all boils down to, the government thinks what they’re doing is fine — and we don’t agree with them — but they believe they have the power to keep doing this. It’s awful,” Montano said. “The settlement, at least, goes to show the government can’t get away with doing this.”
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