For years, the Department of Homeland Security and I.C.E managed the University of Farmington’s website and staffed its phone lines. While the college wasn’t real, its applicants were–and the government says most were trying to take advantage of U.S. immigration law.
Michigan’s University of Farmington may have billed itself as a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution,” but the college was, in fact, the front for an elaborate immigration sting.
The metropolitan Detroit university was created by the Department of Homeland and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Designed to expose visa fraud, dozens of recruiters and prospective students could face arrest or deportation.
According to the New York Times, authorities recreated what’s know as a “pay to stay” scheme. Students would pay big money to knowingly enroll in a fake school with admission offers designed solely to protect their visa status and enable them to stay in the United States.
Eight “recruiters” have been charged in the case, which National Public Radio bills are exceedingly complex.
Between them, the recruiters are accused of enlisting at least 600 people. They received payments from the fictitious University of Farmington as well as their clients, netting upwards of a quarter-million dollars in profit.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement participated by detaining prospective students who enrolled at the university. An agency spokesperson said that about 130 people have been arrested for administrative immigration violations.
Attorney Ravi Mannam says the investigation wasn’t centered on Michigan.
“I have received calls from Georgia, Louisiana, California, North Carolina,” Mannam, an immigration lawyer, said. “It seems to be a nationwide ICE action as we speak.”
Most of the students accused of trying to illegally extend their visas are from India.
“We are all aware that international students can be a valuable asset to our country,” said Matthew Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “But as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused.”
The Times notes that ICE hasn’t released any information on the total number of students who attempted to enroll at the University of Farmington, or what they plan to do with tuition money collected from would-be attendees.
Interestingly, the make-believe university had its own website, outfitted with contact numbers, pricing and accreditation claims.
However, the school was exclusively administered by undercover agents from Homeland Security Investigations.
Prosecutors allege that arrested recruiters and students all know they were forwarding money to a university that didn’t hold classes.
“Each of the foreign citizens who ‘enrolled’ and made ‘tuition’ payments to the University knew that they would not attend any actual classes, earn credits, or make academic progress toward an actual degree in a particular field of study,” the indictments say, adding that students knew that “discretion should be used when discussing the program with others.”
Mannam has been especially critical of the sting, saying some students enrolled as a last measure. Some of his clients from India, for instance, traveled to the United States only to find that their preferred institutions had lost accreditation. Consequently, they enrolled at Farmington in the hopes they could transfer credits.
And others still had completed graduate degrees but had yet to be approved for specialty work visas. Many enrolled in programs like the University of Farmington’s as “stopgap measure” designed to give them enough time to secure employment authorization without having to first return to India.
“The government utilized very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution,” Mannam said.
Asked by The Detroit News whether the government’s tactics could be construed as entrapment, Wayne State law professor Peter Henning said likely not.
“It’s creative and it’s not entrapment,” he suggested. “The government can put out the bait, but it’s up to the defendants to fall for it.”
NPR notes that students shouldn’t confuse the fictitious University of Farmington with the real-life University of Maine at Farmington, which bills itself as the state’s first public college.