HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - A Hillsborough resident and 20 other suspects identified as brokers, recruiters and employers have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and to harbor aliens for profit following a government sting that centered around the fictitious University of Northern New Jersey.
The undercover operation was launched in September 2013 to investigate criminal activities associated with the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program, according to New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman.
A website for the school, www.unnj.edu/ , has been disabled and is no longer accessible on the Internet. The site was created by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was the centerpiece of the sting operation.
Narendra Singh Plaha, 44, identified as a Hillsborough resident in the complaint, was charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit.
The criminal complaint released by Fishman identifies Plaha as president of Right OPT, “a purported international student recruiting and consulting company located in Somerset, NJ.”
The indicitment continues: “Plaha was also the president and director of Platys Group LLC and Ikkon Group, two purported information technology and outsourcing companies that shared the same physical address as Right OPT.”
The 21 defendants conspired with more than 1,000 foreign nationals to fraudulently maintain student visas and obtain foreign worker visas through the fictitious “pay to stay” New Jersey college, according to Fishman.
The defendants were arrested in New Jersey and Washington by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations and charged in 14 complaints with conspiracy to commit visa fraud, conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit, and other offenses.
“‘Pay to Stay’ schemes not only damage our perception of legitimate student and foreign worker visa programs, they also pose a very real threat to national security,” Fishman said. “Today’s arrests, which were made possible by the great undercover work of our law enforcement partners, stopped 21 brokers, recruiters and employers across multiple states who recklessly exploited our immigration system for financial gain.”
“While the United States fully supports international education, we will vigorously investigate those who seek to exploit the U.S. immigration system,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “As a result of this operation, HSI special agents have successfully identified and shut down multiple operations which have abused the student visa program.”
“Individuals engaged in schemes that would undermine the remarkable educational opportunities afforded to international students represent an affront to those who play by the rules. These unscrupulous individuals undermine the integrity of the immigration system,” said ICE Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Terence S. Opiola. “Our special agents are committed to addressing, identifying fraud in order to better protect the system as a whole.”
According to the complaints and statements made in court:
The defendants, many of whom operated recruiting companies for purported international students, were arrested for their involvement in an alleged scheme to enroll foreign nationals as students in the University of Northern New Jersey, a purported for-profit college located in Cranford, New Jersey (UNNJ). Unbeknownst to the defendants and the foreign nationals they conspired with, however, the UNNJ was created in September 2013 by HSI federal agents.
Through the UNNJ, undercover HSI agents investigated criminal activities associated with the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), including, but not limited to, student visa fraud and the harboring of aliens for profit. The UNNJ was not staffed with instructors or educators, had no curriculum, and conducted no actual classes or education activities. The UNNJ operated solely as a storefront location with small offices staffed by federal agents posing as school administrators.
UNNJ represented itself as a school that, among other things, was authorized to issue a document known as a “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status - for Academic and Language Students,” commonly referred to as a Form I-20. This document, which certifies that a foreign national has been accepted to a school and would be a full-time student, typically enables legitimate foreign students to obtain an F-1 student visa. The F-1 student visa allows a foreign student to enter and/or remain in the United States while the student makes normal progress toward the completion of a full course of study in an SEVP accredited institution.
During the investigation, HSI special agents identified hundreds of foreign nationals, primarily from China and India, who previously entered the U.S. on F-1 non-immigrant student visas to attend other SEVP- accredited schools. Through various recruiting companies and business entities located in New Jersey, California, Illinois, New York, and Virginia, the defendants then enabled approximately 1,076 of these foreign individuals – all of whom were willing participants in the scheme – to fraudulently maintain their nonimmigrant status in the U.S. on the false pretense that they continued to participate in full courses of study at the UNNJ.
Acting as recruiters, the defendants solicited the involvement of UNNJ administrators to participate in the scheme. During the course of their dealings with undercover agents, the defendants fully acknowledged that none of their foreign national clients would attend any actual courses, earn actual credits, or make academic progress toward an actual degree in a particular field of study. Rather, the defendants facilitated the enrollment of their foreign national clients in UNNJ to fraudulently maintain student visa status, in exchange for kickbacks, or “commissions.” The defendants also facilitated the creation of hundreds of false student records, including transcripts, attendance records, and diplomas, which were purchased by their foreign national conspirators for the purpose of deceiving immigration authorities.
In other instances, the defendants used UNNJ to fraudulently obtain work authorization and work visas for hundreds of their clients. By obtaining this authorization, a number of defendants were able to outsource their foreign national clients as full-time employees with numerous U.S.-based corporations, also in exchange for commission fees. Other defendants devised phony IT projects that were purportedly to occur at the school. These defendants then created and caused to be created false contracts, employment verification letters, transcripts, and other documents. The defendants then paid the undercover agents thousands of dollars to put the school’s letterhead on the sham documents, to sign the documents as school administrators, and to otherwise go along with the scheme.
All of these bogus documents created the illusion that prospective foreign workers would be working at the school in some IT capacity or project. The defendants then used these fictitious documents fraudulently to obtain labor certifications issued by the U.S. Secretary of Labor and then ultimately to petition the U.S. government to obtain H1-B visas for non-immigrants. These fictitious documents were then submitted to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). In the vast majority of circumstances, the foreign worker visas were not issued because USCIS was advised of the ongoing undercover operation.
Federal agencies have begun the process to terminate the nonimmigrant student status for the foreign nationals associated with UNNJ, and if applicable, administratively arrest and place them into removal proceedings.
The charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and making a false statement each carry a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The charges of conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit and H1-B Visa fraud each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.