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Informant in federal student visa case admits blowing cover

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A Little Ferry woman who worked as a snitch for Homeland Security agents admitted in federal court in Newark today that she tipped off at one potential target of a probe into a foreign student visa fraud ring that operated out of Jersey City and other areas.

After agreeing to work a confidential informant, 26-year-old Vaidehi A. Patel “informed a number of people about her cooperation and HSI’s investigation into Vision Career Consultants and PC Tech Learning Center ( above ) for visa fraud and other crimes,” U.S. Attorney Paul S. Fishman said this afternoon.

One of them was suspected of being involved in the ring, he said.

Fishman said Patel then lied to Homeland Security agents when she said she hadn’t told anyone about the probe.

He didn’t say what Patel’s role in the investigation was, or how she came to agree to work undercover for the government.

Under federal guidelines, a judge could sentence her to five years in prison and fine her $250,000 fine, although it is likely to be far less than that in both cases. Sentencing is scheduled for July 16.

Fishman credited special agents from Homeland Security Investigations with the investigation that led to the guilty plea secured by Assistant U.S. Attorney Shana W. Chen of the Organized Crime/Gangs Unit in Newark.

Federal agents last June rounded up several people who the government said participated in the ring.

“The Student and Exchange Visitor Program opens educational opportunities to deserving foreign students and enriches the educational environment at our schools,” Fishman said at the time. “The defendants tried to corrupt this worthy program to enable illegal entry into the country and to reap personal profit.”

The principals operated from, among other places, PC Tech, a medical training school on Bergen Avenue in Jersey City, just off Journal Square, Fishman said. The facility eventually was closed due to non-payment of rent.

Fishman said the crimes were discovered during a Homeland Security investigation into alien smuggling, alien harboring, and visa fraud in Middlesex County and elsewhere. Agents found that “a substantial number of illegal aliens from India and other countries have obtained legal immigration status as international students through fraudulent means and false statements,” he said.

The accused ringleader in this case, 34-year-old Dhirenkumar Parikh, was president, owner, and registered agent of Vision Career Consultants USA Inc., an Iselin company that operated as an intermediary between students and various academic institutions within the U.S.

In exchange for a referral fee, it recruited students for those institutions in exchange and helped them in applying for the special federal program by supplying the necessary documents.

Parikh and his co-conspirators did this without verifying any of the foreign nationals’ information, Fishman said. They also “falsely certified attendance records and actively assisted some students with hiding their prior violations of immigration law,” he said in a statement.

The principal defendants also offered students a “bridge program” that cost $2,500 to $5,000, the complaint says.

“Because students in India are only required to complete three years of college level courses in order to obtain the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, they need to take an additional year of courses, which costs approximately $10,000, before they may attend a master’s level program in the United States,” it says.

In order to save the cost of an additional year of course work, some students paid Parikh and his co-conspirators to create false documents to make it appear as if they’d met the requirement.

Two years ago last month, Customs and Border Patrol officers interviewed one of the defendants, his wife, and two foreign students with documents allowing them to attend PC Tech at Philadelphia International Airport after the arrived from Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Both of the students admitted they didn’t have legal immigration status and had paid $3,500 each for the special documents, a complaint on file in U.S. District Court in Newark says.

A conspirator who later helped the government was part of another trip, this one in October 2011, bringing five students in from Montego Bay to Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, the complaint says. Their tickets were booked through Parikh’s email address on Travelocity.com, it says.

One of them, it turns out, didn’t attend PC Tech at all. One of the defendants even got employees to sit in classrooms “for fear of a visit from immigration authorities,” the complaint alleges.

Other beneficiaries have since come forward and described the illegal process in detail, the government said.

So have former employees of Vision Career Consultants (VCC), including one who said he was directed to sign an attendance sheet for a class he didn’t take, so that he could maintain his status. There were others, said the former worker, who agreed to help the government investigation.

The pattern laid out by federal investigators is widespread.

One of the defendants, Michelle Alphonso, included a bogus bank statement and forged letter from her father in a bid to change her immigration status to that of a  non-immigrant student in order to attend PC Tech, the complaint alleges. Others did the same.

Federal agents recorded several meetings, including one at which another defendant, Vanrajsinh Chavda, agreed to file an application to change an immigrant student’s status, in exchange for $1,600.

The case underscores “the need for constant vigilance in protecting all avenues of entry into this country,” Fishman said.

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