U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stopped publishing key data about a massive job training program for foreign students following a joint investigation between NBC Bay Area and NBC News that found evidence of fraud.
The multi-year investigation found identified more than two dozen potential shell companies, some as recently as this month. Thousands of students in the United States on F-1 student visas may have used false employment records at some of these companies to illegally stay in the country after attending American universities.
thousands of students in the United States on F-1 student visas may have used false employment records at more than two dozen potential shell companies to illegally stay in the country after attending American universities. A recent ICE Ombudsman’s report, which cited NBC’s investigation, found the program was vulnerable to espionage.
Click here to read NBC Bay Area’s 2019 investigation.
Combined, the companies identified by NBC Bay Area employed nearly 4,000 foreign nationals in 2019 alone through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, an extension of the F-1 visa program. The program allows students to stay in the country for up to three years after graduation if they find employment in a field related to their area of study.
‘It’s great work that you did, but we need to do more,” said East Bay Congressman Mark DeSaulnier. “It’s incumbent on us here in Congress to provide the oversight to hold people accountable and dissuade people from trying to do this.”
NBC Bay Area’s investigation relied on annual ICE data listing the top 200 employers of foreign students through the OPT program. But the agency is now keeping the latest data private.
“ICE is not releasing the employer data sets due to sensitivities surrounding ongoing investigations,” an ICE spokesperson said in an email to NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.
In 2019, Mountain View businesswoman Weiyun "Kelly" Huang pleaded guilty in US District Court to conspiracy to commit visa fraud for selling employment papers through two fake companies to thousands of Chinese nationals. One of those foreign students turned out to be an accused Chinese spy, according to the FBI.
In October 2020, ICE announced the arrest of 15 foreign students who allegedly claimed to be employed by companies that don’t exist. When asked for updates on that investigation or whether ICE was targeting individuals behind potential shell companies, the agency declined to comment. Except for Findream and another affiliated company, ICE hasn't publicly announced charges against any other companies or company officers.
Possible Shell Companies
Among the top 25 OPT employers listed by the Feds, are industry leading firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple, according to records from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). But scattered among those corporate powerhouses, NBC Bay Area found more than two dozen companies with unclear business dealings and minimal online footprints.
NBC Bay Area’s efforts to contact officers at those companies were typically met with a series of dead-end business addresses and disconnected phone numbers. In multiple cases, websites contained language that was an exact match with language from a different company’s website.
The ICE ombudsman’s Office found lax oversight made the program vulnerable to foreign spies and noted special concerns about espionage from government agents tied to the People’s Republic of China.
“There appears to be a high risk that the OPT is being used as means for strategic adversaries to conduct espionage and technology transfers from the United States,” the Ombudsman’s report states.
Two of the suspicious companies identified by NBC Bay Area both list the same Durant, Oklahoma, business address. Neither company returned phone calls from NBC Bay Area.
Both company websites show photos of sleek office buildings next to that Oklahoma address, but a Google Maps search reveals an old building that looks nothing like the structures depicted in either photo. Although both companies list the same address, the building photos are completely different on their respective websites.
NBC Bay Area eventually did find one of those buildings on the website of an architectural firm. Further digging took NBC Bay Area to the building’s true location: 500 miles away, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Records show that building has no connections to either of the two purported tech companies.
Last year, Houston employment-based immigration attorney Raul Reddy said he began getting calls from students saying their visas were being revoked after Homeland Security officials accused them of fraud.
He says 4,600 students, many from India, face deportation after paying hundreds or thousands of dollars each for employment verification letters through three apparently fake companies all tied to the same individuals. Two of those companies – Integra Technologies LLC and AZTech Technologies LLC – were each among the top six employers of foreign students in 2018, according to ICE data. The two companies employed nearly 3,000 foreign students combined that year.
“Their future is destroyed in the United States and they have been sent back,” Reddy said.
But Reddy said he doesn’t believe every student knew what they were getting into.
“[The companies] solicited the people,” Reddy said. “They sent the email saying they were going to conduct training sessions for you, we are going to do the legal requirements as required by OPT.”
Raul Reddy wrote about his experience here .
Still, Reddy says students should be wary of potential scams.
“If you don’t visit the company, you never shake hands with the person, you’ve got to doubt these people are what they are,” Reddy said.
“The Program is Incredibly Valuable”
Despite the evidence of fraud, several economists who spoke to NBC Bay Area say the OPT program is a net win for the American economy.
“The aggregate effect when you look at the entire country is that the program is incredibly valuable,” said Jeremy Neufeld, an immigration policy analyst with the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank
Neufeld said the student visa program and OPT extension attracts the best and brightest students from around the world, many of whom make significant contributions to the U.S. economy.
“If your region attracts more participants, you’re likely to see more patenting and more innovation taking place there,” Neufeld said.
“Serious National Security Implications”
Others want tighter scrutiny of the program.
“The concern that a lot of us have was that this fraud was going on unchecked,” said former Trump administration senior Homeland Security advisor Jon Feere.
Feere now works as the Director of Investigations for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for reducing immigration to the United States and has written about OPT fraud for years.
“We had hundreds, if not thousands of foreign nationals openly lying to DHS about where they were working and what they were doing,” Feere said.
“Obviously there are very serious national security implications there.”
In May of last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to the acting DHS secretary seeking answers on the extent of fraud within the OPT program.
“How many companies currently provide employment to F-1 visa holders under the OPT and STEM OPT programs?” asked Grassley. “How many companies were identified as being engaged in fraudulent or potentially fraudulent activities?”