Students who had visas revoked in fake university sting can sue US government, court rules

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A federal appeals court ruled last week that a group of foreign-born students can sue the federal government over claims it wrongfully canceled their visas following a sting in which the U.S. set up a fake university to catch corrupt visa brokers, according to published reports.


The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia revived a proposed class action on behalf of more than 500 students who said they were deprived of due process when the government revoked their lawful immigration status after ensnaring them in the sting, according to a report published by Reuters.


The students were ensnared in a case involving the University of Northern New Jersey, a sham university created in September 2013 by the Department of Homeland Security that carried fake federal accreditation but had no class offerings, faculty or campus, according to published reports.


Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, writing for a three-judge panel that overturned a lower court’s ruling, faulted the government’s “flip-flop” over whether the students, including many from India, who thought they were enrolled at the sham university were innocent victims or fraud participants, according to published reports.


The U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey announced in April 2016 the sting operation and charged 21 education recruiters and employers agents – many who typically charged thousands of dollars to help secure visas –with conspiring with more than 1,000 foreign nationals to fraudulently maintain their status on student visas and gain work authorization by enrolling in the “pay-to-stay” fake college, sometimes known as “visa mills,” according to Inside Higher Ed.


The would-be students were not criminally charged, but Homeland Security revoked the visas of many students, citing what the government called their “fraudulent enrollment”, leading to the would-be students’ lawsuit to restore their legal status, according to Reuters.


The students have claimed the government violated their due process rights by revoking their visas en masse rather than through individual hearings for each of their cases.


In October 2017, U.S. District Judge Jose Linares in New Jersey dismissed the lawsuit, saying it was filed too soon because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had yet to act on the students’ applications to have their visas reinstated, Reuters reported.


In this month’s ruling, McKee countered, saying visa revocations were final orders the students could challenge in court, according to Reuters. McKee also said it may still prove a “formidable challenge” to certify a class action because of many differences among affected students.

“It would be a cruel irony indeed if we were to allow the government’s own flip-flop on that characterization to deprive us of the ability to review the disputed governmental action,” McKee wrote, according to Reuters. “The flip-flop underscores the need for judicial review of a decision that would otherwise escape review by any court or agency.”


The original complaint, filed in November 2016, asserts that students were lured into enrolling in UNNJ by the promises that they could lawfully continue working without immediately attending classes. International students on F-1 visas can obtain work authorization through one of two programs, optional practical training (OPT) or curricular practical training (CPT), both of which are governed by specific rules and regulations, Inside Higher Ed reported.



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