Early in April 2016, 21 people were arrested for inappropriately recruiting foreign national students to a supposed academic institution that did not actually offer real classes or employ faculty members. In fact, the University of Northern New Jersey was part of an operation set up by the Department of Homeland Security in order to track and discipline those engaged in visa fraud. Brokers had arranged F-1 visas based on the fraudulent university for students, some of whom used their status to secure employment at high-profile companies. Some of the defendants also used the “school” to apply for H-1B visas for clients.
These arrests are part of an unfortunate trend to lure foreign national students based on fraudulent conditions. In Jan. 2016, a New York federal judge at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the executives at a medical professional school to forfeit $7.4 million and pay $1 million in restitution for faking student attendance to maintain eligibility for federal tuition grants and nonimmigrant visas (U.S. v. Hiranandaney et al., case number 1:14-cr-00409). The defendants in that case forged documents related to F-1 visas and failed to properly report that foreign students were not maintaining their attendance requirements as required by their status. In 2011, the former president of a university in California was arrested for submitting fraudulent documents for F-1 visa applications in exchange for tuition and fees, and in August 2012 that university’s CEO was charged with 15 counts of visa fraud.
Such sham university/visa document schemes are extremely problematic, not only for the risks to national security they raise by issuing fraudulent visas without engaging in the proper requirements, but also because of their impact on foreign nationals personally as well as the U.S. immigration program generally. Most of the students who receive such fraudulent visas, many of whom tend to enter the United States with valid visas and then apply to such schools in order to stay under what they consider lawful conditions, will have their visas revoked following the exposure of the fraudulent activity. As a result, they will likely have to depart the United States – without a valid degree – and will also have to explain the incident on future U.S. nonimmigrant and immigrant visa applications.
While the students in such sham university/visa document cases are not typically charged with criminal activity themselves, it is very important that they avoid criminal or fraudulent activity while in the United States. Foreign nationals must be aware of their rights and responsibilities as nonimmigrants. For example, someone on an F-1 visa should know that he is required to attend courses, and should question being told that his university does not actually offer classes. We have also seen cases where foreign nationals – without seeking proper counsel – have stayed in the United States after being suspended from their academic institutions (though they should have departed or transferred to another university in a timely manner upon being made aware their SEVIS record would be terminated) or where they have attended school with only a B-1/B-2 visa (though visitors are permitted to engage in study that is avocational or recreational in nature only; i.e., not academic).
As our team has previously reported, misrepresenting important issues (including intent to give birth in the U.S. while applying for a B visitor visa or hiding the history of having attended school in the United States with a fraudulent F-1 or entirely improper visa) can have very serious consequences and result in future visa denials. In general, unauthorized acts committed in nonimmigrant status may later impact foreign nationals’ ability to apply for a green card, including via the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program. It is therefore always advisable to seek immigration advice from an experienced attorney when dealing with potentially problematic issues. Understanding and complying with the requirements of the applicable nonimmigrant visa status is critical to best prepare for future U.S. immigration applications.