The US Homeland Security agency has created bogus ‘schools’ in sting operations designed to snare foreign students who allegedly flout US immigration laws to illegally work and extend their US stays. The government says it’s fighting criminal organizations that exploit US travel, trade, financial and immigration laws. But some Chinese students say they’re the unwitting victims of discriminatory federal practices aimed at foreign students who study at American universities.
On the early morning of April 5th, two FBI agents walked into Zhao Yu’s house and arrested her.
Like a lot of Chinese students, Zhao Yu came to the US for further studies after attaining her undergraduate degree in China. In 2014, she landed a job in a financial company after graduating from Illinois Institute of Technology. She didn’t get a H-1B visa until this year, which was the first step towards a longer stay in the US. But her hopes were soon dashed.
The H-1B visa is also known as a Specialty Occupations/Temporary Worker Visa, which is issued to foreign workers in specialty occupations. It is a non-immigrant visa. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) usually assigns the visas in the order that the applications were made. If the applications outnumber the quota by a large margin, USCIS will run a lottery to assign visas.
Another foreign woman was arrested along with Zhao. She worked at Capital One Financial Corp. as a software engineer, and was waiting for the H-1B visa to turn into a full-time employee.
Why were they arrested? It was due to their common status as foreign students at an institution called the University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ). UNNJ was a fake school created by Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. HSI operates under the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Its ostensible purpose is to combat criminal organizations that illegally exploit US travel, trade, financial and immigration systems.
What happened to the two women underscores a dilemma facing many foreign students who study in the US. According to the US State Department, 1 million international students were studying at American universities during the 2014-2015 academic year. This represented a 10% increase from the prior year. Of these students, 45% came from China and India. The latest statistics also show that the grant ratio of H-1B for masters degree candidate students fell from 70% to 60%, while the percentage for undergraduate students fell to 30% or lower.
Visa applicant rat maze
Zhao had been in the US under Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT is a work permission given to international students with a student F-1 visa, which allows the student to do a job that’s related to his/her major for 1 year. There is another designation called Curricular Practical Training (CPT) that allows international students with a F-1 status to do an internship related to his or her major. It requires the approval of the teaching staff and the university’s international student office, and it cannot exceed 20 working hours each week.
For those who fail to secure H-1B visas, the easiest way to stay in the US is to go back to school and use CPT to extend their legal time in the US while waiting for the next round of the H-1B lottery.
One year after graduation, Zhao’s OPT expired, and she failed to receive an H-1B visa. In order to stay in the US, she enrolled in UNNJ under CPT. But she has never attended any classes after enrollment.
Zhao said her understanding was that CPT required her to enroll in a course with credits, but that not attending classes under this arrangement was not weird. She had been working since her enrollment. Nothing happened, so she had no suspicions or doubts.
After her arrest, Zhao received a subpoena from the government and had to stop working. She cried that the government had ruined her future as a foreign student in the US.
Bogus school games
UNNJ was a fake school founded by the Homeland Security Investigations under ICE in September, 2013.
FBI agents played administration staff of the school and trapped 21 education agents, who were charged with helping foreigners receive visas through fraudulent activities. It was a total trolling operation.
More than 1,000 international students enrolled at the school were snared in the investigation. Most were from China and India. US officials informed the students that they were under investigation and their student visas would be nullified. They were told they might be deported but wouldn’t be charged.
UNNJ had all the trappings of a legitimate school. Its Web address ends with edu. Its Facebook page updates the status of the school and carries photos of the school buildings. It is authenticated by an NGO called the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). It can also be found on the Study in the States page on the website of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Students say such information showed that the school legally existed, and that whether they offered classes should not be a test of its authenticity.
Luo Di wanted to study digital marketing after working for one year in the states. She said that UNNJ’s tuition was much lower than other schools. This is why she chose to enroll in UNNJ.
A friend introduced an education agency called Kaisi to Luo. The person who contacted Luo assured her that UNNJ had distance education, and that there was a campus located near Luo’s residence. But these promises failed to materialize.
Luo tried to contact the school several times, but was never put through to anyone. She could only stay put. In the meantime, she occasionally made some art pieces to sell to make ends meet.
Luo finally found out that the school was fake when the news was announced publicly. She called the Kaisi education agency, figuring that the agency was conned too. Later, she got a phone call from ICE asking her to come by and have a talk at their office.
ICE Age dragnet
When questioned about her case, Luo felt that ICE agents knew nothing about immigration issues. They even asked her what CPT and OPT were. She said their low working efficiency was appalling. The agents spent hours to copying her materials, collecting her fingerprints, and printing out her subpoena. One agent even said that with a subpoena she could still go back to China, or find another school in the US where she could study, which was the exact opposite to what an immigration lawyer told Luo.
After her processing, Luo never heard from ICE again. She joined a WeChat group with 200 victims of UNNJ. Some members of this group were able to go on with their lives, others were arrested and jailed.
Qiu Huiyue, a member of the New York branch of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) told Initium that the way US law enforcement deals with foreign students varies by region. ICE has branches in many highly-populated states. Each state unit has a different approach.
Luo wonders where the tuition money paid out by the students went. Qiu believes that the tuition was partly given to the education agencies as commissions. In usual practice, the government forces these agencies to return the money. The rest of the tuition money collected from students under the sting operation is in the university’s bank account, which is now controlled by ICE. Qiu says the US government should be pressed to address the issue, otherwise the students’ money might be appropriated.
Li Fan, another student, told Initium that education agencies serve as outsourced admission offices. New schools or schools that can’t attract good students tend to establish such relationships with education agencies.
Since the UNNJ incident, CPT services are no longer listed in the ads made by these education agencies.
The education agencies involved in the UNNJ caper have plenty to worry about. Zong Jie, an immigration policy researcher told Initium that the affected UNNJ students may take their case to court. But until the matter is legally resolved, they cannot work. This subjects them to great economic hardship.
Lawyer Huang Ziqian suggested that the students form a UNNJ victims’ organization to attract public attention and force the US government to properly deal with the issue.
(All student names are pseudonyms)
This article was originally published on June 8, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated by Jiawen Guo for Asia Times