Mon, Jan 26, 2015 - Page 7 News List

US investigators target visa mills

SCHOOLS FOR SCAMS?Half a dozen institutions have been shut in recent years amid allegations they were exploiting the US’ student visa system

AP, SAN FRANCISCO

From her hometown in India in 2010, Bhanu Challa said she had no reason to doubt that Tri-Valley University was a legitimate US school where she could pursue a master’s degree. Its Web site featured smiling students in caps and gowns and promised a leafy campus in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb.

Months later, her hands were in cuffs as US federal investigators questioned her motives for being in the country.

Authorities told her that Tri-Valley was a sham school. It was selling documents that allowed foreigners to obtain US student visas, and in some cases work in the nation, while providing almost no instruction, according to federal investigators.

“I was blank, totally blank,” Challa said, recalling her shock. “I did not know what to do, who I could approach.”

EXPLOITATIVE

Tri-Valley is among at least half a dozen schools that have been shut down or raided by US authorities in recent years over allegations of immigration fraud. Like Tri-Valley, they had obtained permission from US immigration officials to admit foreign students.

However, most offered little or no instruction or did not require all students to attend classes, instead exploiting the student visa system for profit, investigators said.

“If there’s a way to make a buck, some people will do it,” said Brian Smeltzer, head of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit.

Last year alone, Smeltzer’s office flagged about 150 of the 9,000 or so schools certified to accept foreign students for investigation as potential visa mills, he said.

Smeltzer said many of the schools the agency investigates are in California, which has the highest number of foreign students and schools certified to accept them. New York ranks second.

US government watchdogs say the recent visa fraud cases have exposed gaps in the ICE’s oversight of schools that admit foreign students — a problem the agency says is being corrected. Experts say the scams hurt the reputation of the US’ higher education system, which currently enrolls about 900,000 foreign students.

“If anybody has any illusions there was one just bad apple, that’s not the case,” American Association of State Colleges and Universities director of federal policy analysis Barmak Nassirian said. “There are plenty of them out there.”

PLENTY OF FAKES

At California Union University in Fullerton, owner Samuel Chai Cho Oh staged phony graduation ceremonies as part of a visa scheme, according to officials. He pleaded guilty to visa fraud and money laundering and was sentenced to a year in prison in 2011.

At College Prep Academy in Duluth, Georgia, president Dong Seok Yi conspired to enroll some women with the understanding they would not attend classes, but work at bars, prosecutors alleged. He was convicted of immigration document fraud and sentenced last year to 21 months in prison.

Investigators said Tri-Valley, with more than 1,000 students — many of them Indian nationals — was among the largest school fraud scams they have encountered.

The school’s founder and president, Susan Xiao-ping Su (蘇小平), used more than US$5.6 million she made in the scam to buy real estate, a Mercedes-Benz and multiple homes, US prosecutors said.

16 YEARS IN JAIL

She was sentenced in October last year to 16 years in prison after a conviction on visa fraud and other charges. The school is now closed.

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