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ICE arrests 15 foreign students for allegedly using visa program to stay in U.S. fraudulently

Officials said the students had claimed to work in the U.S. for fake companies. An earlier NBC News probe found fake firms exploiting the program.
Image: Senate Homeland Security Committee Holds Hearing On Threats To Homeland
Ken Cuccinelli, senior official performing the duties of the Deputy Homeland Security Secretary, testifies at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 24, 2020.Joshua Roberts / Pool via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Fifteen foreign students have been arrested for allegedly using a student work visa job program to stay in the U.S. fraudulently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Wednesday.

Officials from ICE and the Department of Homeland Security said the students. most from India, had claimed to work for companies that don't exist, and that the arrests were preliminary results from a law enforcement investigation that began in January called Operation OPTical Illusion.

"The arrests we highlight today are just the beginning and should serve as a warning," said Tony Pham, the senior official now performing the duty of ICE director. "Any non-immigrant student who fails to maintain or violates the terms of their non-immigration status is subject to arrest and removal from the United States."

The "OPT" in the operation's name refers to "Optional Practical Training," a program offered to foreign students allowing them to remain in the U.S. and gain work experience while studying in, and after graduating from, American colleges and universities. OPT is temporary employment, permitted to students with F-1 and M-1 student visas, and must be directly related to a student's major area of study.

A joint investigation by NBC News and NBC's Bay Area station found the F-1 visa program appears to have been exploited by fake companies providing false employment verifications.

In May, citing NBC News reporting, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked DHS to answer questions about the scope of fraud in a U.S. student visa program.

DHS and ICE officials said Wednesday that their investigation had identified 1,100 foreign nationals who appeared to be "not obeying the law." The officials said ICE had sent letters to 700 of them informing them it was revoking their work permits.

An ICE press release said the 15 arrests "took place in and around" Boston, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Nashville, among other cities. Those arrested included 11 Indian nationals, two Libyan nationals, one Senegalese national and one Bangladeshi national.

Ken Cuccinelli, the senior official performing the duties of DHS deputy secretary, said the enforcement actions "will open up those jobs for American workers."

"That has been a very high priority for this president," he said.

Pham said that ICE would continue to "identify, locate and take appropriate action against these violators."

"Additional phases of Operation OPTical Illusion are underway," he said. "Our team of special agents continue to investigate both fraudulent employers and student violators."