Federal authorities have shut down at least six U.S. schools in recent years over allegations of immigration fraud. The schools often dupe students into believing that they are accredited and collect hefty tuition fees, but provide little if any instructional education.
Brian Smeltzer, chief of the Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations says frankly, “If there’s a way to make a buck, some people will do it.”
In 2014, Smeltzer and his team opened investigations into 150 of about 9,000 schools that matriculate foreign students. The Mercury News reported that the schools serve as visa mills for alien students. California leads the country with the most schools investigated for fraud, while New York maintains the dubious distinction of runner-up.
According to government watchdogs, the fact that an escalating number of fake schools are able to procure visas for foreign students exposes a glaring weakness by ICE and hurts the reputation of the USA’s higher education system. The News reports that there are about 900,000 foreign students in America.
One victimized student, Bhanu Challa, was accepted at Tri-Valley University, just outside of San Francisco, allowing her to pursue a master’s degree. The school had obtained certification from U.S. immigration officials to enroll foreign students.
Unfortunately for Challa, the school was investigated, identified as a sham school, and she found herself in handcuffs one day being interrogated by authorities. “I was blank, totally blank …,” she said, recalling her shock. “I didn’t know what to do, who I could approach.”
Tri-Valley was among the largest school fraud scams authorities have investigated. The school enrolls 1,000 students, many of them coming from India.
Tri-Valley founder and president, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, landed in prison with a 16 year sentence for bilking students for over $5.6 million. Prosecutors said that Xiao-Ping Su had used the money to live a lavish lifestyle, buying commercial real estate, a Mercedes Benz and multiple homes. The school has since been closed.
Aiming to eliminate fake school fraud, Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security Investigations’ Student and Exchange Visitor Program said that, “We’ve put in a greater system of checks and balances.” According to a Government Accountability Office report in 2012, ICE often failed to verify the validity of school curriculum and overlooked patterns pointing to fraud.
As for Challa, who paid $3,000 for her first semester at Tri-Valley, having never received an assignment or an exam, later got her MBA from an accredited school. “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 U.S.”