NEW YORK (AFP) - The United States arrested 21 suspects on suspicion of visa fraud conspiracy for allowing more than 1,000 foreign students, primarily from China and India, to extend their stay in America illegally, prosecutors said.
Federal agents set up a fake university to ensnare the suspects in an operation that spotlights growing concern about visa fraud at a time when illegal immigration has become a major issue in the US presidential campaign.
Prosecutors said the recruiters, brokers and employers were charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbour the foreigners for profit, which each carrying a maximum sentence of five and 10 years in prison, respectively.
Homeland Security investigators set up the so-called University of Northern New Jersey in September 2013 in a bid to crack down on visa fraud from foreigners who fraudulently maintain their non-immigrant status on false pretence.
They staffed offices in Cranford, New Jersey with undercover agents posing as administrators, but there were no teachers, no curriculum and no classes, prosecutors said.
They reeled in suspects by pretending to have the authority to grant the certificate that allows foreigners to get a legitimate student visa.
The defendants then enrolled their foreign clients to fraudulently maintain their student visa status in exchange for kickbacks, prosecutors said.
They created false student records and diplomas, for which their clients paid, to deceive the immigration authorities and allegedly used the fake university to fraudulently obtain work visas for hundreds of clients, creating false contracts, employment verification letters, transcripts and other documents.
The defendants allegedly paid undercover agents thousands of dollars to put the school's letterhead on the sham documents and sign the paperwork.
The US authorities said they were working to terminate the visas for the foreigners in question, who are mostly from Asian countries, and arrest them if necessary.
The suspects "recklessly exploited our immigration system for financial gain", said chief New Jersey prosecutor Paul Fishman.
He said "Pay to Stay" schemes damage legitimate student and foreign worker visa programmes and "pose a very real threat to national security".
Almost a million foreign students enrolled in US higher education programmes in 2014-2015, up 10 per cent on the previous year, the State Department has said.
China and India accounted for 67 per cent of the increase in international students, and constituted nearly 45 per cent of the total number of foreign students, said the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.