University of Farmington office in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Photo taken in 2017. (Photo: Matt Friedman/Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications)
In a nationwide sweep, federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have arrested 130 foreign students who were enrolled at a fake university in metro Detroit that was created by ICE to lure in students trying to remain in the U.S.
“We have arrested 130 foreign nationals on civil immigration charges,” ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell told the Free Press on Thursday. “This may increase.”
ICE made the arrests in the early morning hours Wednesday, the same day federal indictments were unsealed that charged eight people, six of them from metro Detroit, in a visa fraud scheme. The sweep was one of the largest targeting immigrants from India in recent years, attorneys say.
The eight defendants were charged criminally for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. But the 130 students were arrested on only civil immigration charges.
The arrests took place across the U.S., in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, Michigan, California, Louisiana, North Carolina, St. Louis, according to immigration attorneys. Some of the arrests of the students came at their homes early in the morning before dawn. BY LITTER GENIEHelps #StopCatLitterSmell!See more →
The students had immigrated legally to the U.S. on student visas and had transferred to the University of Farmington so they could work, said attorneys. Out of the 130 students, 129 are from India and one is Palestinian, said ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls.
Federal prosecutors claim the students were aware the university was not running a legitimate operation. But attorneys who have spoken with students or with family and friends of those arrested are pushing back against the government’s claims.
Ravi Mannam, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, said the government’s fake university “kind of hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous master’s programs.”
The entrance sign at 30500 Northwestern Hwy. in Farmington Hills, Michigan references the University of Farmington. (Photo: Google)
He said that what the University of Farmington was offering — allowing students to work while enrolled — is not unusual. And so the students may have thought it was an authorized university and work program through a type of F-1 visa known as CPT (Curricular Practical Training).
Michael Sofo, an attorney in Atlanta with Mannan and Associates said based on what he has heard about the students, it’s “not been the case” that they were knowingly participating in an illegal operation.
“There are specific universities who have advanced degree programs that primarily involved practical training from day one that allows them to enroll and the bulk of the time is spent working,” Sofo said. The courses “can be done at a remote location. It doesn’t have to be where they attend the university. … Programs like this exist and they are legal.”
ICE maintains that the students arrested were not in valid status because they were not enrolled in a full course of study as required by federal regulations. Prosecutors called it a “pay-to-stay” scheme.
ICE said that foreign students are granted what are called “F” and “M” visas to study in the U.S. and must maintain their legal status by enrolling in a university certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). ICE said that that since the University of Farmington did not offer courses, the students were using the program as a way to work.
Many of the students are from India and were trying to pursue master’s degrees. After they arrived legally in the U.S. on student visas, some of them sought transfers because of accreditation problems their universities had, said Mannam.
Mannam said that the officials at the university were telling students that they could enroll and work through the CPT program.
“They were in a distress situation and looking to transfer out to a different university and they saw the government website, the University of Farmington website,” he said.
Logo of the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Prosecutors say it is a fake university created by HSI of ICE, part of the Dept. of Homeland Security, to investigate student visa fraud. (Photo: Dept. of Homeland Security)
The students were led to believe by officials at the University of Farmington — who were actually with ICE — that the students could work while enrolled at the university.
The arrests and news of the fake university also made headlines in Indian newspapers and Telugu-language media outlets.
An official with the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, K. Rama Mohana Rao, wrote a letter Thursday to India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj asking her to help the Indian students who have been arrested.
“All the students were made to believe that their admission was valid,” said Rao in a letter posted on social media and also reported by the Times of India. Rao said many of the students came from poor and rural backgrounds.
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security shut down a website they had been created for the University of Farmington. On the website, it now reads: “The University of Farmington has been closed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
It tells affected students to contact their local office of Homeland Security Investigations, the ICE agency that did the investigation and undercover operation.
Update: On Friday, the Indian Embassy in the U.S. released hotlines to call for help and information on the detention of the 130 students, 129 of which are from India. The numbers are 1-202-322-1190 and 1-202-340-2590 or email firstname.lastname@example.org