Several aggrieved international students have filed lawsuits against a fake university in the United States originally designed to track those engaging in visa fraud. The fake institution named University of Northern New Jersey was an elaborate ruse set up by the Department of Homeland Security to lure brokers and recruiters suspected of engaging in student visa fraud.
Nigeria Abroad reports that several of the affected students decried losing thousands of dollars only to find out that the institution was not real. One of such students is Dong, a 27-year-old Chinese man. Dong, who graduated from Syracuse University, was accepted into a master’s programme in computer science at UNNJ. When he applied for the programme, he was told the course would allow him to stay in the US on a student visa and continue working as a computer programmer.
But he was waiting on a visa authorization form, and no one at the school was getting back to him.
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With the clock ticking down on his current visa status, Dong, who lived in Brooklyn, New York, decided to rent a car and drive to the college. On getting to the supposed institution, he met Steve Brunetti, the school’s president. Brunetti produced the government form, signed it and handed it over to Dong. He then gave the student a UNNJ T-shirt and snapped a photograph that was soon posted on the school’s Facebook page.
“He told me he was proud of his students,” Dong recalled. Dong would later pay over $6,000 in tuition and broker fees over the next six months, believing he was earning credits toward his degree by continuing to work at his computer programming job. He had received permission from the school to work full time prior to beginning any coursework as part of a government-authorized program that allows foreign students to gain practical skills in their fields of study.
In April 2016, however, he found out that Brunetti wasn’t a real administrator — and the University of Northern New Jersey wasn’t a real school. Rankled by the arrangement, several affected students filed a federal lawsuit alleging that they were collateral damage in the sting, duped by both the brokers and the undercover agents who posed as university officials.
The US government lawyers have struggled to keep their stories about the students straight. The government had claimed the students were “victims of fraud.”
The initiative, however, led to a clampdown on officials involved in visa fraud.
Federal prosecutors announced charges against 21 people who they said arranged for students to enrol at UNNJ in a “pay to stay” scheme (a 22nd person was charged later). The defendants were accused of fraudulently obtaining student visas for about 1,000 foreign nationals in exchange for kickbacks or “commissions.”
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Jill Welch, a senior policy advisor at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an advocacy group, said she believes the UNNJ case underscores the need for Congress to update the nation’s immigration laws to better accommodate foreign students who wish to remain in the country to work.
She said: “We all win when that happens. The situation we have here is our own government, rather than focusing on how we can make it easier for students to work here, set up a fake university in order to lure these students into believing it would help them gain practical applied learning experience they were seeking.”