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.”
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.
The Tri-Valley case also sparked protests in India, where officials objected to US authorities placing ankle monitors on former students. Investigators say they believe some students were cheated out of an education, but others were happy to be in the US whether they learned much or not.
Jerry Wang, chief executive of another San Francisco Bay Area school, Herguan University in Sunnyvale, is also facing visa fraud charges. Prosecutors say he provided federal officials with false employment information about students, transcripts and a letter purporting to show another school accepted Herguan’s credits. He has pleaded not guilty, and the school remains open.
His attorney, James Brosnahan, said the allegations against his client are completely untrue.
“It is a very real university,” he said, adding that it recently was accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
The organization confirmed that the school was accredited.
To be certified by immigration officials to accept foreign students, schools must be accredited by a US Department of Education-approved organization or have their courses accepted by at least three accredited schools.
A 2012 US Government Accountability Office report said the immigration agency was not always verifying letters purporting to show that a school’s courses were accepted elsewhere. It also said the agency was failing to analyze schools for patterns that suggested fraud.
The agency now verifies every school credit letter and has developed a tool to assess the seriousness of any school violations.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
“We’ve put in a greater system of checks and balances,” Homeland Security Investigations’ Student and Exchange Visitor Program spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said.
At Tri-Valley, Challa said she paid nearly US$3,000 for her first semester, but never received an assignment or an exam. She was unhappy that she was not learning and was taking steps to transfer when the school was raided in 2011. She later completed her MBA and is now working in the US.
“I had to pursue my studies here; I had to get a job,” she said. “I was the first person in my family to come to the US.”
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