FILE - The Department of Homeland Security flag.
FILE - The Department of Homeland Security flag.

U.S. law enforcement officials say 21 people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in a conspiracy that allowed over 1,000 foreigners to stay in the country under the pretense of attending or working for a fake university.

The defendants were aware that the University of Northern New Jersey had no instructors, classes or degree programs, but they did not know it was created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The fake university, complete with a convincing website and a promise of "an exceptional educational experience," was created in 2013 in an effort by Homeland Security to curb visa fraud in the U.S.

U.S. attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman told reporters that visa brokers and recruiters flocked to the fake university as word got out, one even admitting to Fishman that this was a long-standing practice, "just another stop on the ‘pay-to-stay' tour."

The 21 defendants, who are mostly in the U.S. legally, have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens for profit.

Most of the foreign nationals who benefited from the scam come from India and China and were already in the U.S. on non-immigrant visas but looking for ways to stay. They have been identified and will be dealt with by immigration authorities, but not prosecuted, Fishman said.

Currently, the majority of the 1.2 million students on student visas in the U.S. are attending legitimate universities, government officials told the New York Times.

Several cases of student visa fraud have been reported across the country, creating security concerns for immigration officials under increasing pressure to screen visa applicants for potential terrorism ties.