A university in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan was utilized as part of an undercover operation by the Department of Homeland Security to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors handling the case. The University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Mich., introduced itself as a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution. It boasts of an innovative curriculum, flexible class schedules and a diverse student body.
However, it was discovered that there was no curriculum, no classes and no real students. The authorities alleged that foreign students were aware of these facts and enrolled in the fake school in order to remain in the United States on student visa status.
Eight “recruiters” were charged by the authorities for enrolling at least 600 individuals in the school. The perpetrators made more than $250,000 from the farce.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement had arrested about 130 people on administrative immigration violations as part of its investigation and had also detained people who had enrolled at the fake university.
An immigration lawyer based in Atlanta claimed that it looks to be a nationwide ICE initiative having received calls from Georgia, Louisiana, California, and North Carolina. Most of the students victimized in the scheme were from India.
Matthew Schneider, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in a news release, “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.”
ICE had neither stated the total number of students that had enrolled in the university nor elaborated on how the tuition fees that were collected will be used by the authorities.
Apparently, undercover agents from Homeland Security Investigations had posed as the owners and employees of the University of Farmington since February 2017. It had a real website with program details, tuition rates, and even contact information. However, the phone number went straight to voicemail for the “office of admissions”. While there are curriculums, there were not real instructors and no actual classes conducted.
Prosecutors said that everyone involved with the school knew that. “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 said, adding that the students knew that “discretion should be used when discussing the program with others.”
However, an immigration lawyer, criticized the undercover operation as misleading and argued that some students thought they were actually enrolling in a legitimate program.
He alleged that some students from India enrolled elsewhere but found out that their intended schools had lost accreditation and so ended up enrolling at University of Farmington, instead. They were hoping that their previous credits may be applied to the new program which put emphasis on work experience.
Some of the other students were already finished with legitimate master’s programs in the US but still waiting for approval of specialty work visas. As such, they enrolled at Farmington as a stopgap measure.
“The government utilized very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution,” the immigration lawyer alleged.
Another immigration lawyer in Houston claimed he had spoken with about 25 students who had enrolled at the University of Farmington and who were facing possible charges. Some had already been arrested, while others had left the country in a rush. He warned other international students to be cautious of universities that do not hold regular classes or that claim to immediately issue work permits. This could be a trap.
Two years ago, a similar operation took place in New Jersey when federal prosecutors and ICE announced that the University of Northern New Jersey, with its official website and seal featuring the Latin words “Humanus, Scientia, Integritas,” was a fake set up by the government.
Back then, about 20 recruiters who enlisted foreign students, who were mostly from China and India, were arrested, 25 students were suspected of being anonymous co-conspirators, and more than 1,000 of students faced deportation or a lifetime ban from the United States.
Officials claimed that the students were “100 percent fully aware” that they had enrolled in a fake school. However, some insisted that they were collateral damage, victimized by both the recruiters and the government.
The website for the University of Farmington, which had once appeared to show photos of students, had been taken down. The site was replaced with a page showing the university’s logo next to a law enforcement badge and a warning: “The University of Farmington,” it said, “has been closed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
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