US ran fake university to expose immigration fraud

Lawyer says US government is using very questionable and troubling methods

A screengrab of the now closed website of the ‘University of Farmington’ which was set up by the US government to expose immigration fraud.

A screengrab of the now closed website of the ‘University of Farmington’ which was set up by the US government to expose immigration fraud.

 

The University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, billed itself as a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution,” with an innovative curriculum, flexible class schedules and a diverse student body.

But it had no curriculum, no classes and no real students, authorities said this week. The university in the suburbs of Detroit was part of an undercover operation by the Department of Homeland Security designed to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors who announced charges in the case.

In what authorities called a “pay to stay” scheme, foreign students knowingly enrolled in the fake school to falsely maintain their student visa status and remain in the US, according to prosecutors.

Authorities charged eight “recruiters” in the case. They are accused of enlisting at least 600 people to enroll in the school. Prosecutors said the recruiters collected money from the fake university for bringing in students and made more than $250,000 in profit.

The BBC reported on Sunday that India has made a diplomatic protest to the US after 129 Indian students were arrested for enrolling in the fake university.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement also detained people who had enrolled at the university, according to immigration lawyers working on the case.

“I have received calls from Georgia, Louisiana, California, North Carolina,” said Ravi Mannam, an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta. “It seems to be a nationwide ICE action as we speak.”

India

The students swept up in the scheme were largely from India, lawyers said. “We are all aware that international students can be a valuable asset to our country,” Matthew Schneider, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in a news release Wednesday.

“But as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused.”

ICE did not respond to requests for comment. Undercover agents from Homeland Security Investigations had posed as the owners and employees of the University of Farmington since February 2017, the indictments said.

The university had a real website with program details, tuition pricing and contact information. The phone number for the university went to a voicemail box for the “office of admissions.”

But the university was not staffed with instructors and had no actual classes, according to the indictments. 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.”

But Mr Mannam, the immigration lawyer, criticized the undercover operation as misleading and said some students had believed they were enrolling in a legitimate program.

‘Troubling methods’

He said some students had come from India to the US to enroll elsewhere, only to find that their intended program had lost accreditation. So they enrolled at the University of Farmington, believing that they could apply their prior credits to the new program, which seemed to emphasise work experience, he said.

Other students had completed legitimate master’s programs in the United States but were waiting to be approved for a specialty work visa, so they enrolled in school as a “stopgap measure,” he said.

“The government utilised very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution,” Mr Mannam said.

Rahul Reddy, an immigration lawyer in Houston, said he had spoken with about 25 students who had enrolled at the University of Farmington and who were facing possible consequences. Some had already been arrested, he said, while others had rushed to leave the country. - The New York Times