How can you tell when a university is not a university at all, but in fact an elaborate sting operation concocted by the federal government to nab fraudulent recruiters?
Well, when the university offers no courses, credits, professors, or intramural softball leagues, that’s usually a good clue. What at first glance appeared to be your typical fly-by-night for-profit university turned out to be something even less legitimate.
The University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ) sounds real enough, if not likely the most picturesque campus. It was accredited by the state’s Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. Its website called it an “exceptional educational experience” enveloped by an “exhilarating atmosphere of ingenuity, creativity, and innovation.”
Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security exercised no shortage of ingenuity when it propped up an imaginary institution of higher learning to ensnare would-be international visa cheaters and the recruiters who love them. As far as exhilarating atmospheres go, this spy thriller ranks a couple notches below a Tom Clancy novel but at least one notch above Welcome Back, Kotter reruns.
Established in 2012, according to the snooty Latin crest presented on its now defunct but archived site, UNNJ was a mere shell. Its purpose was to expose those who would exploit America’s U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program in order to obtain temporary legal status. UNNJ, housed in an office space in Cranford, New Jersey, posed as a visa mill.
According to the feds, visa mills pose as universities in order to issue students “Certificate(s) of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status — for Academic and Language Students,” or Form I-20. This form allows the individual to acquire a student visa, an arrangement which is designed to facilitate unobstructed opportunity for international students who truly aspire to an American education.
But this also makes it particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Both those “hired” to recruit on behalf of UNNJ and those consequently recruited from overseas knew quite well just how vulnerable.
Recruiters for UNNJ understood that Form I-20 would be the only thing provided to “students” in exchange for tuition money. There would be no classes, curricula, or exams. These facts came fully to light in early April when the Justice Department filed charges against 21 people who thought they were employees of an actual fake university, as opposed to a fake fake university.
Still with me? The brokers and recruiters hired by UNNJ to court international students knew full well that they were doing so under the pretenses of visa fraud. What they didn’t know was that they were unwitting flies in the federal government’s spiderweb. As part of an effort to crack down on a practice that the feds say is a direct threat to national security, agents posing as administrators dispatched recruiters with an explicit understanding that UNNJ was not an actual university. They were also instructed to ensure that their recruits understood this as well.
For instance, a conversation between an undercover agent and a recruiter who would eventually be served with charges went something like this:
Agent: “You know that none of these people are going to class, just, 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.”
Recruiter: “Yeah, yeah, oh yeah. We’ve been doing this for years. [N]o worries.”
Recruiters were basically prompted during the job interview to acknowledge that they would be participating in an international “pay to stay” scheme. The recruiter here above went one step further and admitted to participating in such schemes “for years.”
Thereafter, and under the conditions that generally define “pay to stay,” recruiters enjoyed kickbacks while knowingly facilitating student visas for 1,076 immigrants who would never take a single class. That is, until the feds dropped the hammer on them, likely prompting more than a few to wonder why the government would go to such trouble simply to expose the misdeeds of 21 dirty dealers.
The answer to that can probably be found in a 2012 Government Accountability Office report calling out the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for its failure to seriously address security holes in the nation’s student exchange program. This sting was likely a warning shot to would-be perpetrators that the federal government is now paying attention.
And as far as stings are concerned, this one does earn at least a few points for creativity. True, this university lacked a student center, dining hall, or reflection pond. But, UNNJ did have a reasonably effective social media presence. Its Facebook page, which has also been deleted, was regularly updated and even helped to propagate the fictitious president, Dr. Steven Brunetti. So effective was the school’s social media campaign that followers were genuinely moved to offer condolences when the Facebook page reported that President Brunetti’s mother had passed on to the great beyond.
So if there is a bright side in all of this, it’s that Dr. Brunetti’s mother is not dead. But it seems unlikely that this will be any consolation to the targets of the federal string. The 21 alleged fraudsters may each be subject to between 5 and 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Not that we’re second-guessing the federal government, but with the sting now complete, we have successfully courted and facilitated the entry of 1076 foreign nationals on false pretenses. So . . . now there’s that to deal with. Those who entered the country as UNNJ recruits will have their visas revoked and, in most cases, face deportation.
Behold friends, your tax dollars hard at work!