Federal officials created a fake university and trapped 21 people in a large-scale conspiracy that allowed more than 1,000 foreigners to maintain student and work visas over the last 2 1/2 years.

Blake David Taylor, ThinkStock

The nearly two dozen defendants whose arrests were announced Tuesday knew the University of Northern New Jersey was a sham with no instructors, classes or degree programs, officials said. But, they were unaware the school was a creation of agents of Immigration and Customs.

Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said at a news conference that once word got out about the bogus school, the visa brokers and recruiters descended. During one secretly recorded conversation, Fishman said, a conspirator said the practice has been going on for years.

"This was just another stop on the `pay-to-stay' tour," he said.

Most of the defendants, who Fishman said are in the U.S. legally, live in New York, New Jersey and California. One lives in Illinois, and one in Georgia.

They are charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit. The second charge carries a maximum prison term of 10 years. They were scheduled to make initial court appearances in Newark later Tuesday.

Most of the foreign nationals who benefited from the alleged scheme hailed from China and India and were already in the U.S. on non-immigrant student visas. They have been identified and will be dealt with by immigration authorities, but won't be prosecuted, Fishman said.

According to Fishman and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana, the defendants solicited the undercover agents to enroll their clients at UNNJ, which was located in a building in Cranford, about 15 miles southwest of New York City, in order to fraudulently maintain their student visa status.

The defendants proceeded with the understanding that their clients wouldn't attend any classes or earn credits toward a degree, officials said.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


Sign up for the NJ1015.com Newsletter

Get the best of NJ1015.com delivered to your inbox every day.