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ICE’s Fake University Seemed To Be More About Creating Fear Than Addressing Fraud

Ann Johansson / Corbis via Getty Images

ICE’s Fake University Seemed To Be More About Creating Fear Than Addressing Fraud

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

In 2016, the University of Farmington was registered with the state of Michigan. It was an accredited university, according to a national accreditation agency. It was approved for participation in a government program for foreign students, according to ICE. Over the next year it admitted over 600 students, the vast majority from India. Students were charged around $12,000 a year.

The whole thing was a ruse. The University of Farmington was fake, created by ICE to ensnare people seeking a visa status that allows off-campus jobs for students who meet certain criteria.

In January this year, the arrests began. Two weeks ago, ICE announced that it had arrested 250 foreign students of the University of Farmington so far. Nearly all of them faced civil immigration charges. Eight people were criminally charged for recruiting students to the fake university, reported the Detroit Free Press.

The Free Press began reporting on the arrests in January and it chronicled the extraordinary lengths that ICE went to to present the University of Farmington as a legitimate enterprise. It was undercover agents from the Department of Homeland Security who registered the university. Homeland Security asked the national accreditation agency to list the fake university on its website. And the department included the University of Farmington on its list of universities approved for the Students and Exchange Visitor Information Program.

Shikha Dalmia of Reason, writing last week, described additional steps that ICE agents took to create the illusion of a functioning university. “Its website billed the now-disbanded university as a STEM school offering various graduate degrees,” she writes. “It pretended that the university was founded in the 1950s to offer returning soldiers from World War II a ‘quality and marketable education’ to help turn Detroit into a ‘center of innovation’ for manufacturing … It even invented a fake seal with the motto ‘Scientia et Labor,’ meaning ‘Knowledge and Work.’”

ICE “coordinated with DHS to ensure that the enrolled students would show up on DHS’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS),” wrote Dalmia. She continued: “SEVIS is akin to an E-verify program for universities, a federal database that lists all foreign students in good standing with immigration authorities. Students not enrolled in a federally recognized university aren’t listed on SEVIS. For foreign students looking for American education, this is the ultimate seal of official approval.”

ICE agents then masqueraded as university officials to recruit students.

It worked. Some students, previously enrolled in programs that had lost their accreditation, made the switch to the University of Farmington. Some left legitimate degree programs for Farmington, due to the promise of cheaper tuition. Some, after enrollment, tried to quit once they realized the university was not holding classes. None of these categories were spared.

Despite ICE and Homeland Security’s elaborate efforts to present the University of Farmington as real, prosecutors claimed that people who enrolled could not have believed it was legitimate. In its indictment, ICE claimed that “each of the foreign citizens who ‘enrolled’ and made ‘tuition’ payments to the University” knew that the program was ‘not approved by the DHS’ and was ‘illegal.’” Dalmia writes: “This is simply not true. The university was listed as accredited on state and federal sites. Moreover, students also had no reason to believe that the university was fake given that the DHS handed them SEVIS authorization, which would not have been possible if it weren’t an approved school.”

The eight people alleged to have recruited people to enroll at the university were charged with “conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbor aliens and profit from them.” From the reporting it does not appear that those eight people were charged with involvement in any other, non-ICE fake universities.

Lawyers and representatives for those arrested tell a different story. They describe students hoping to pursue degrees and people of little means who were cheated out of large sums of money. ICE has not announced any intention of returning the fees that people paid.

Dalmia writes: “The fundamental question … is what the government hoped to accomplish with this elaborate scheme … to the extent that ICE considers visa mills a problem, it would make more sense for it to go after existing visa mills rather than launching additional fake ones of its own. Instead of turning students into recruiters by throwing temptation in their way, ICE could have gone after professional recruiters. Nothing ICE has done so far has put a single university or recruiter out of business.”

A lawyer for many of those charged told Reason that the visa and diploma mills that do exist—and that have not been touched by these ICE operations—victimize foreign students. “And instead of rescuing them, ICE is victimizing them too,” Dalmia writes.

This is not the first time ICE has created a fake university. In 2015, ICE created the University of Northern New Jersey, which offered no classes but seemed to offer a way for enrolled students to again work off-campus. It seemed to offer people eager to stay in the United States a way to enroll and show that they were taking courses so that they could meet their visa requirements and be eligible to work. Many students appear to have expected a legitimate university. And it appears that ICE’s intended targets were not students, but brokers. Nevertheless, over 1,000 students lose their visa status and were forced out of the country.

As Liz Robbins reported for the New York Times: “More than a dozen students insisted that they were collateral damage in the sting operation, duped by both the brokers and the government … the students point to what they say was active deception by the government: in-person meetings with the university’s supposed president, letters confirming they could work instead of go to class, and Twitter messages about classes canceled because of bad weather.”

One Detroit-area professor placed ICE’s more recent sting operation in the larger immigration context. Amer Zahr, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Detroit-Mercy and a spokesperson for one of the students detained by ICE, spoke with the Detroit Free Press shortly after the arrests began. He said: “It seems quite clear the scheme was set up by the government not to go after legitimate offenders, but to create fear in our immigration system.”

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