Hundreds of would-be international students, most of whom have been deported, have been accused by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of knowingly entering into an illegal “pay to stay” agreement with a fake college with no classes. Recordings of confused students speaking to undercover ICE agents in 2018 were released in court this week, and they tell a different story.
Beginning in early 2019, a convoluted undercover ICE operation made headlines when it led to about 250 arrests for immigration violations that stemmed from enrollment at the University of Farmington, an entity of the agency’s own making. In an undercover plot dating back to the Obama era, potential students—most of those apprehended so far are from India—were recruited to attend the fake tech-focused school, which was carefully crafted to look real, in order for them to enter the United States on a student visa. After paying thousands of dollars in “tuition,” students would get on a Detroit-bound plane “to start their tomorrow today”—only to be arrested at the airport.
Students who come to the U.S. to study are granted F1 visas. These nonimmigrant visas require full-time enrollment in an academic institution, and are meant for those who plan to return home after graduation. Students who fail to meet the enrollment requirements can have their visa revoked.
ICE maintains that the students were aware the university was fake and they were participating in an enrollment scam to avoid revocation. But the recordings portray students asking about their class schedule, only to be told that online classes were not being offered and all in-person classes were currently full. The would-be students seem perplexed by the news, according to the Detroit Free Press, which reviewed the recordings.
"Is there any chance to get me ... to know about my class schedule?" the student asked the university official, according to court records.
"Can we do what?" the undercover agent posing as a university official replied. "We're completely full. We don't have any normal classes to put you in. We are just helping you maintain your status by allowing you to enroll here, but you won't be taking any online classes, nor will you be going to any classes. Are you aware of this?"
Sounding confused, the student replied: "I don't know that actually. ... I don't know what to do now."
That wasn’t the only confused student.
Detroit’s ABC affiliate, WXYZ, offered another transcript.
Agent: To help you maintain your status we can enroll you as if you are a student here, but you wouldn’t be coming to class nor taking any online class
Student: They didn’t tell me about all of this because I am supposed to enroll in some (inaudible) class in order to maintain my status. I was not told about this.
Agent: I have no idea.
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ICE says that it was clear to students that the university was fake, so students enrolled for only one reason: a visa extension, not an education. To strengthen its claim, the agency shared a recording of a students who, when advised that classes didn’t exist and what they were doing was illegal, still chose to proceed with it.
"Their true intent could not be clearer," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Helms in a 2019 sentencing memo, according to the Detroit Metro Times. "While 'enrolled' at the University, one hundred percent of the foreign citizen students never spent a single second in a classroom. If it were truly about obtaining an education, the University would not have been able to attract anyone, because it had no teachers, classes, or educational services."
However, ICE failed to acknowledge the efforts it took to make the university seem real. Agents didn’t just send emails, hire recruiters, and advertise the university as a prestigious science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) school. They also had the university legitimately accredited and listed on the official ICE website as approved for foreign students under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS), according to the Detroit Free Press. Agents even made a school emblem and logo.
"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," said Amer Zahr, an adjunct law professor at University of Detroit-Mercy, in an interview with the Free Press. "They're going after students who are trying to better their lives, because America has the best education. This is who they're choosing to go after? It's really disturbing."
A defense attorney for one of eight recruiters charged as part of the ICE scam described the operation as “baiting,” according to WXYZ. “Everybody we were involved with believed there was going to be online courses. My client was shocked, the students were shocked,” insists defense attorney Anjali Prasad. Prasad, who maintains that the recordings prove the students aren’t culpable, stepped in the shoes of the would-be students, pointing out the University of Farmington portrayed itself as a real university. “I’m going to think it’s a real college, I’m not really going to scratch the surface and think 'huh, maybe it’s a phony college setup by the government to catch me.'” she said.
Prasad also noted that there are far better uses for government resources.
"I think my government's resources would be better spent protecting me from violent criminals and drug dealers," Prasad said. "I'm not sitting around worrying about what highly skilled, well-educated people are doing unless it affects my life and liberty, and it doesn't here. I'm no safer because of the sting operation. There are plenty of ways the government can make me feel safer, and this isn't one of them."