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Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) say every year, they bust hundreds of schools that served as fronts for illegal immigration operations, leaving thousands of foreign nationals who've paid tuition in exchange for a student visa in the lurch, while the head of the "school" often winds up forfeiting property, or, behind bars.
The latest example appears to come from the San Francisco Bay Area: Tri-Valley University based in Pleasanton. Federal prosecutors say it wasn't a school at all- rather an elaborate scheme to defraud the government, and perhaps the biggest scam of its kind.
Open since 2008, TVU's website touts on-line classes in engineering, medicine, and law, and a faculty list of more than 50 highly educated professionals. But those we contacted said they'd never seen the school, or taught a class. Many had no idea their names were on the site, which is peppered with numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes ("Now you graduate, we would like to hear from you, about life and how the study at TVU and the degree do to your career, not just your million dollar donation!").
ICE officials noticed enrollment nearly tripled in a matter of months to over 1,500 students- almost all from the same region of India, and each paying $5,400 per semester to the schools founder, Susan Su.
Court documents say "since its inception, Tri-Valley University has been a "sham" university which Su, and others, have used to facilitate foreign nationals in illegally acquiring student immigration status that authorizes them to remain in the United States."
In a raid last week, ICE agents seized computers and other evidence from four properties allegedly bought with millions in tuition money, including the school's main office building, a converted condo, and a luxury home owned by Su.
She says the school is for real, and denies any wrongdoing. "Make millions dollars-- that is true," she says in her broken English. "You talk about our income, but we do not do cheating, we suppose to be right. This is the standard we charge, with so many students, we never forced anybody to sign up with us."
But in a government sting operation, Su was caught giving F-1 student visas to undercover agents posing as foreign nationals, who told her they wanted to come to the U.S, but had no intention of attending classes.
According to the court filings, the university listed the same address - a single apartment in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale - for nearly all the students. The fact that none were actually living there was a clear attempt, officials say, to conceal the fact that few, if any TVU students lived in California at all. It's believed most were working in other states, and are now scrambling to either transfer to another school, or get a valid visa to stay here. It's likely that many-possibly up to a thousand- Indian nationals will be deported.
As for Susan Su, the government just wants to seize her property for now. But criminal charges, including immigration fraud and money laundering, could be next.