Federal Agents Raid Virginia Institution That Draws Many Students From India

Karen Kasmauski for The Chronicle

The University of Northern Virginia is located in a series of office buildings in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Nearly all of its students are in the United States on visas.
July 29, 2011

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security raided the University of Northern Virginia on Thursday morning, hauling away computers and boxes of paperwork and notifying the suburban Washington institution that it may lose its ability to accept foreign students.

The institution was one of the subjects of a Chronicle investigation earlier this year that examined how little-known, and often unaccredited, colleges exploit U.S. visa loopholes to admit foreign students.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman, Cori Bassett, said Thursday night that she could not provide details about what led federal agents to raid Northern Virginia, citing an ongoing investigation.

The university, Ms. Bassett said, can continue to hold classes but will be temporarily blocked from accepting new international students.

The raid on Northern Virginia, which has called itself the most popular American university for Indian students, is likely to cause an uproar in India, the second-largest sender of foreign students to the United States. A similar raid last winter on a California institution, Tri-Valley University, sparked intense media coverage in India, with newspapers and television shows there portraying oversight of the U.S. visa system as incompetent.

The Chronicle's report found that, like Tri-Valley, nearly all of Northern Virginia's students are in the United States on visas, and the vast majority are from India. The university enrolls a little more 2,000 students, almost all from overseas, according to Daniel Ho, the university's founder and majority owner.

Also like Tri-Valley, Northern Virginia has students who live in other states, some as far away as New York and Ohio. Federal regulations say that foreign students must be physically present on campus and can take no more that a single course per semester online. Northern Virginia officials have said that its students commute regularly to Virginia to attend classes.

'We Have Nothing to Hide'

Mr. Ho said in an interview on Thursday that officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, raided Northern Virginia's offices at about 10 a.m. They took paper files and computers, Mr. Ho said, and they told university officials that everything would be returned next week.

Mr. Ho was not in his office at the time of the raid, but he said he wasn't upset with federal officials and understood they were just doing their jobs. "Even though they're not too friendly to us, I said we have nothing to hide," Mr. Ho said.

He said he only had a few minutes to look at the letter explaining the allegations, but it seemed to him that many of them appeared to be old and were the result of problems that had since been resolved. When asked what specific allegations were contained in the letter, he said he couldn't recall any. "It was a long list," Mr. Ho said.

In an interview in March, Mr. Ho described the university, which operates from rented office space in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., as "very profitable" and "very big." At the time he dismissed questions about its accreditor, the American University Accreditation Council, which is not recognized by the Department of Education. The address listed as the council's headquarters is an auto-body repair shop owned by the chairman of Northern Virginia's board. A caller to the number listed on the accreditor's Web site was greeted with the following message Thursday evening: "This is D'Angelo, so get at me back."

The university is licensed to operate by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Mr. Ho said he was confident that the matter would be resolved in the university's favor. "We might have some problems, but who doesn't? Each time we see a problem, we try to fix it," he said. "In my mind, yes, we obey all the rules."

A computer-science lecturer at Northern Virginia, David Saloman, feared that students who had paid $8,000 or more for tuition this term would not be able to get their money back. Mr. Ho is a millionaire, he said, but the rank-and-file faculty will not be able to move on so easily. "Right now, we don't know what to do," Mr. Saloman said. "I'm out of a job."

Guidance for Students

Ms. Bassett, the Homeland Security spokeswoman, declined to detail the charges against Northern Virginia and said the university has 30 days to respond to the department's notice of intent to withdraw its certification to accept foreign students. But she disputed Mr. Ho's assertion that the university could continue to admit international students during that time, saying the institution would be temporarily blocked from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which tracks foreign students in the United States.

Northern Virginia can, however, continue to hold classes, Ms. Bassett said, and foreign students enrolled at the university can remain in the United States legally, provided they attend classes and meet visa requirements. They also have the option to transfer to another college that is certified to accept foreign students.

Homeland Security has posted guidance on its Web site for Northern Virginia students and has set up a phone line to respond to students' questions.

That response is in contrast to the Tri-Valley raid, in which a number of students were detained and some were made to wear radio-tracking devices, a move widely condemned in India. Indian parents and students expressed concern about the quality of U.S. higher education, and members of the Indian parliament called for protections against "fly-by-night" American institutions. After several weeks of bad publicity, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton felt compelled to assure Indian officials that the situation would be resolved fairly.

Tri-Valley—which the federal government, in court filings, called a "sham university"—was accused of admitting and collecting tuition from foreign students without requiring them to attend class. The university has since has since lost its authority to admit foreign students and has been shuttered, and its president, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, has been charged with 33 counts of violations that include conspiracy to commit visa fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.

Some former Tri-Valley students later sought to transfer to other U.S. colleges, including Northern Virginia.

Mr. Ho said the university would operate normally Friday. "We will be open for business tomorrow," he said.