Students at Fake University Say They Were Collateral Damage in Sting Operation

For foreign-born students desperate, the University of Northern New Jersey seemed like the perfect solution: They did not have to go to class, but they could. They just needed to pay a broker anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000. Over the last three and a half years, more than a thousand agreed.

University of Northern New Jersey, which has been declared by the US government as a fake — part of an elaborate sting operation that resulted in the arrest of 22 brokers who arranged for students to enroll from mostly Asian countries with students, who were eager to stay in the United States, get coveted student visas and work at their dream jobs.

These brokers belonged to an underground network of recruiters operating throughout the country who acted as middlemen between students and fraudulent schools known as visa mills, the government said.

Twenty-five students were listed as anonymous co-conspirators, but officials say all of them knew they were committing fraud by not going to class. Within days, 1,076 of them were ordered to appear in immigration court, facing deportation or even a lifetime ban from the United States.

“They were 100 percent fully aware,” said Alvin Phillips, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “All purported students are recorded at some point or another fully going along with the pay-to-stay scheme.”

There are both audio and video recordings from the president’s office in New Jersey, when students called or visited, Mr. Phillips said. He personally witnessed some of these exchanges, and heard students admit they knew the university would not have classes.

But in interviews, more than a dozen students insisted that they were collateral damage in the sting operation, duped by both the brokers and the government.

In some cases, their efforts to verify the university or even transfer were rebuffed by the brokers, they say. In other instances, the students point to what they say was active deception by the government: in-person meetings with the university’s supposed president, letters confirming they could work instead of go to class, and Twitter messages about classes canceled because of bad weather.

n October, A., a young man from Shanghai living in New York City, was so frustrated when the university had not sent a needed eligibility form that he rented a car and drove to the campus. (A., like most of the students, insisted on being identified only by an initial because their immigration cases were still pending or their families back home did not know their situation.)

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