- Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents set up a fake university in Michigan in order to sting hundreds of foreign students who were participating in a “pay to play” scheme that allowed them to remain in the country.
- The now-defunct University of Farmington was not an actual college but an office pretending to function as one, giving hundreds of foreigners who paid thousands of dollars the chance to live and work in the US with student visas, despite not being students at all.
- Students knew their enrollment in the university was illegal, but they did not know the school was being run by ICE.
The University of Farmington had no staff, no professors, no curriculum and, more importantly, no classes.
But it did have hundreds of foreign “students,” who may now face deportation given their willingness to participate in a “pay to stay” scheme that allowed them to live and work in the US under the false pretense that they were students.
The students were all identified in a sting by Immigrations and Customs agents who were secretly running the university in Farmington, Michigan. ICE set up the school in an attempt to crack down on “pay to stay” schemes in which foreigners pay large sums of money to enroll in false universities and receive student visas.
According to the Detroit News, which first reported on the sting, ICE’s fake university led to the arrest of eight student recruiters who were participants of a conspiracy to help at least 600 foreigners to stay in the US illegally by committing visa fraud. The operation first began in 2015, the News reported, but it intensified early into Donald Trump’s presidency as the administration urged a stronger crackdown on illegal immigration.
On Wednesday, the News reported, federal agents detained dozens of University of Farmington students nationally. The students were arrested on immigration violation charges and could face deportation, an ICE spokesman told the News.
The eight recruiters who were arrested are originally from India but currently lived all across the nation, from Florida to California.
“These suspects aided hundreds of foreign nationals to remain in the United States illegally by helping to portray them as students, which they most certainly were not,” Steve Francis, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office in Detroit, told the News.
The fake university was part of an operation called “Paper Chase,” the News reported. According to federal grand jury indictments unsealed Wednesday, the operation began as a way for Department of Homeland Security agents to identify those in violation of student visas.
At first sight, the University of Farmington looked quite legit. Its professional website — with a .edu address — featured the school’s logo, a red-and-blue coat of arms with a Latin slogan that translates to “knowledge and work.” The website is no longer up — instead, a notice by ICE says the school has been shut down by immigration agents — but a cached version of it saved by Wayback Machine shows a group of smiling students in class and features details on the school’s undergraduate and graduate programs.
In its “factoids” section, the school’s website offers a few details about the university: Undergraduate tuition was $8,500 a year, no courses were taught by teaching assistants, and the school’s president spoke four languages. But nowhere in the website is there any profile of the president, not even a name.
The university also had active social media profiles, including a Facebook page that the News found had events scheduled going into next week. It also had a physical office, albeit not a campus, operated out of the basement of a complex in Farmington. The university, the News reported, was based across the hall from a café.
According to the indictment, “… the university was being used by foreign citizens as a ‘pay to stay’ scheme which allowed these individuals to stay in the United States as a result of of foreign citizens falsely asserting that they were enrolled as full-time students in an approved educational program and that they were making normal progress toward completion of the course of study.”
“It’s creative and it’s not entrapment,” Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, told the News. “The government can put out the bait, but it’s up to the defendants to fall for it.”
The eight recruiters who were captured helped foreign “students” fraudulently obtain immigration documents from the university and helped them get phony student records, including transcripts, that would make it easier for them to get student visas. The recruiters, the News reported, were not aware that the university was being run by ICE.
The recruiters collectively received $250,000 in cash and kickbacks to find students to attend the university, the News reports. They now face up to five years in prison.
All students enrolled in Farmington were aware that the program was illegal, but not that it was run by ICE, according to the indictments. Most of them were Indian nationals who belong to the Telugu ethnic group, the Washington Post reports.
“We are all aware that international students can be a valuable asset to our country, but as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused,” US Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement Wednesday.
According to the Post, the University claimed to be accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, but it did not appear in an online directory of accredited institutions on the organization’s website. The DHS’ list of certified schools where international students can enroll includes the University of Farmington.
The Farmington case isn’t the first time federal agents have used a phony university, according to the News. In 2016, DHS agents used the fake University of Northern New Jersey to charge 21 people with student and work visa fraud.