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
American school where she could pursue a master's degree. Its
website featured smiling students in caps and gowns and promised
a leafy campus in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb.
her hands were in cuffs as federal investigators questioned her
motives for being in the U.S. Authorities told her that
Tri-Valley was a sham school. It was selling documents that
allowed foreigners to obtain U.S. student visas, and in some
cases work in the country, while providing almost no
instruction, according to federal investigators.
blank, totally blank ...," she said, recalling her shock.
"I didn't know what to do, who I could approach."
among at least half a dozen schools shut down or raided by
federal authorities in recent years over allegations of
immigration fraud. Like Tri-Valley, they had obtained permission
from U.S. immigration officials to admit foreign students.
offered little or no instruction or didn't require all students
to attend classes, instead exploiting the student visa system
for profit, investigators said.
there's a way to make a buck, some people will do it," said
Brian Smeltzer, chief of the Counterterrorism and Criminal
Exploitation Unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's
Homeland Security Investigations.
alone, Smeltzer said, his office flagged about 150 of the
roughly 9,000 schools certified to accept foreign students for
investigation as potential visa mills.
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 has the second most.
watchdogs say the recent visa fraud cases have exposed gaps in
ICE's oversight of schools that admit foreign students — a
problem the agency says is being corrected. And experts say the
scams hurt the reputation of the U.S. higher education system,
which currently enrolls about 900,000 foreign students.
anybody has any illusions there was one just bad apple, that's
not the case," said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal
policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges
and Universities. "There are plenty of them out
Union University in Fullerton, owner Samuel Chai Cho Oh staged
phony graduation ceremonies as part of a visa scheme, according
to immigration 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.
say Tri-Valley, with more than 1,000 students, many Indian
nationals, was among the largest school fraud scams they have
encountered. The school's founder and president, Susan Xiao-Ping
Su, used more than $5.6 million she made in the scam to buy
commercial real estate, a Mercedes Benz and multiple homes,
federal prosecutors said.
sentenced in October to 16 years in prison after a conviction on
visa fraud and other charges. The school is now closed.
case also sparked protests in India, where officials objected to
U.S. 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 U.S. whether
they learned much or not.
Jerry Wang, CEO
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.
James Brosnahan, said the allegations against his client are
completely untrue. "It is a very real university," he
said, noting that it recently was accredited by the Accrediting
Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
organization confirmed that the school was accredited.
To be certified
by immigration officials to accept foreign students, schools
must be accredited by a Department of Education-approved
organization or have their courses accepted by at least three
Government Accountability Office report said ICE was not always
verifying letters purporting to show the school's courses were
accepted elsewhere. It also said ICE was failing to analyze
schools for patterns pointing to fraud. The agency now verifies
every school credit letter and has developed a tool to assess
the seriousness of any school violations.
in a greater system of checks and balances," said Carissa
Cutrell, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security Investigations'
Student and Exchange Visitor Program.
Challa said she paid nearly $3,000 for her first semester, but
never received an assignment or an exam. She was unhappy that
she wasn't 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 U.S.
"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