A recent months-long investigation found that thousands of foreign students may have used false employment records at more than a dozen potential shell companies to illegally stay in the country after attending American universities. Many of those students may have used the companies as steppingstones to land jobs at major U.S. firms, according to government officials and an analysis of student LinkedIn profiles.

Currently, foreign students studying in the U.S. can work in the country for up to three years using the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, an extension of the F-1 student visa program. OPT is designed to give those students additional hands-on work experience in a field related to their area of study. Among the top 25 OPT employers are industry-leading firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple, according to records from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). But scattered among those corporate powerhouses are a handful of companies with unclear business dealings and virtually no online footprints.

NBC’s efforts to contact officers at 14 suspicious companies were met with a series of dead-end business addresses and disconnected phone numbers. Emails, phone calls, and social media messages went unanswered by all but two companies. In those two instances, an officer reached by phone verified their identity but declined to discuss their company. Those 14 companies employed more than 5,500 foreign students through the OPT program in 2017, according to ICE records.

But employment data for those suspicious companies may soon change. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which oversees the F-1 visa program on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, recently updated how it generates data for international students.

Following several indictments against companies charged with similar schemes, NBC Bay Area analyzed OPT employment data, corporate filings, and a host of online records and found red flags with 12 additional companies, including some of the country’s top OPT employers. Red flags varied by company, but each shared a common set of traits: Unreachable corporate officers, an OPT workforce comprised of 99% Chinese nationals and corporate headquarters based at either single-family homes, luxury residential high-rises or shared workspaces. Other top OPT employers continued to hire students even after their companies dissolved, according to ICE records and employee LinkedIn pages.

NBC Bay Area’s investigation also found red flags with six other companies that hired employees through the OPT program, including Abroad Intellect Capital, Acuty, Dealfar, Smoothies Technology and New Beast. But there are signs other suspicious companies could be operating under the radar. NBC Bay Area focused its investigation on the country’s top OPT employers, but an analysis of more than a million student records from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program found many employers use the program on a much smaller scale.

“Any time you have people in the United States that are doing something other than what they’ve told us they’re doing, there’s always a risk,” SEVP Director Rachel Canty said. “But that is why we look at the companies very carefully. That’s why we do data analytics and that’s why we do investigations.” SEVP has administrative compliance powers and can take enforcement actions that stop short of criminal investigations, such as withdrawing a school’s certification to accept international students if it's not complying with regulations. For cases that may warrant criminal probes, SEVP partners with Homeland Security Investigations or other law enforcement agencies.

“We have a multi-pronged approach to enforcement,” Canty said. “We do data analytics, we have technology, we have a lot of vetting tools. So there’s a lot of things we do behind the scenes to try to identify those entities that may require investigations.”

Historically, most enforcement of the F-1 visa program has been focused on schools. But ICE officials said they’ve recently begun conducting work site visits for certain OPT employers to ensure they’re providing legitimate work-based learning centered around students’ area of study.

Regulations adopted in 2016 granted ICE the authority to perform work site visits for companies hiring foreign students through the STEM OPT program, which allows F-1 visa holders studying science, technology, engineering, or math to work in the U.S. for three years in a field related to their studies. But those powers don’t extend to the standard OPT program, which allows just one year of employment for F-1 students.

Canty declined to state whether officials conducted site visits at the 14 suspicious OPT employers identified by NBC Bay Area, but ICE data shows all but one of those companies hired at least a portion of their F-1 workforce through the STEM OPT program, making them eligible for ICE inspections.

For the full story, please visit NBC Bay Area.

Updated: Wed, Dec 18th 2019 @ 4:33pm EST