The University of Farmington had no staff, no professors, no curriculum, and no classes.
But it did have hundreds of foreign “students,” who may now face deportation because of their willingness to participate in what authorities described as a “pay to stay” scheme in which they could live and work in the US under false pretenses.
It was part of a sting by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents who were secretly running the fake university in Farmington, Michigan, in an attempt to crack down on immigration fraud.
Citing a federal grand-jury indictment, The Detroit News, the first to report on the sting, said ICE’s fake university led to the arrest of eight student recruiters on charges that they participated in a conspiracy to help at least 600 foreign nationals stay in the US illegally by committing visa fraud.
The indictment said that “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 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.”
On Wednesday, The News reported, federal agents detained dozens of University of Farmington students on immigration-violation charges. They could face deportation, an ICE spokesman told the newspaper.
Most of the eight recruiters who were arrested are from India, but they all live in the US, The News reported, adding that they didn’t know the university was run by ICE.
“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, a special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office in Detroit, told The News.
The university began in 2015 as part of an operation called “Paper Chase,” which intensified early into Donald Trump’s presidency as the administration urged a stronger crackdown on illegal immigration, The News reported.
At first sight, the University of Farmington looked legit. Its .edu website featured the school’s logo, a red-and-blue coat of arms with a Latin slogan meaning “knowledge and work,” The News reported.
The website is no longer up — a notice on it says the school has been shut down by immigration agents — but a cached version saved by Wayback Machine has a photo of smiling students in class, as well as details about undergraduate and graduate programs.
In its “factoids” section, the school’s website offers a few details: Undergraduate tuition is $8,500 a year, no courses are taught by teaching assistants, and the school’s president speaks four languages. But nowhere on the website is there a profile — or even the name — of the president.
The university also had active social-media profiles, including a Facebook page that The News found had events scheduled into early February. It also had a physical office, albeit not a campus, in the basement of a complex in Farmington, across the hall from a café, The News reported.
“It’s creative, and it’s not entrapment,” Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a law professor at Wayne State University, told The News. “The government can put out the bait, but it’s up to the defendants to fall for it.”
The eight recruiters are accused of helping foreign nationals fraudulently obtain documents from the university like student records and transcripts that would make it easier for them to get student visas, The News reported. It said they also “collectively received $250,000 in cash and kickbacks to find students to attend the university.”
The students enrolled in Farmington were also aware that the program was illegal, according to The News. Many appear to be Indian nationals belonging to the Telugu ethnic group, The Washington Post reported.
“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 did not appear in an online directory of accredited institutions on the organization’s website.” The newspaper added that the DHS’s “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,” The News reported. In 2016, DHS agents “used the fake University of Northern New Jersey to charge 21 people with student and work visa fraud.”