U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents created a fake university in suburban Detroit, complete with bogus social media accounts and a fake facility in an office park, to lure undocumented immigrants who were trying to stay in the United States, unsealed federal indictments revealed Wednesday.
The investigation dates to 2015, The Detroit News reported, but it intensified in early 2017, after President Donald Trump began cracking down on illegal immigration.
Eight people from across the United States, ranging in age from 26 to 35, were charged with participating in a conspiracy to help at least 600 foreign citizens stay in the U.S. illegally, according to the indictments. Steve Francis, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations office in Detroit, said the eight 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."
Federal investigators invented the fake University of Farmington using a website illustrated by stock photos of students studying and talking. They also set up a facility in a commercial building in Farmington Hills, northwest of Detroit. On its “About Us” page, Farmington said it “traces its lineage back to the early 1950s, when returning soldiers from the Second World War were seeking a quality and marketable education.” Its "Admissions" page notes a "rolling admission process" and says the university encourages students "to apply early to ensure a smooth transition to UF."
The university also claimed to be accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a real accrediting agency based in Arlington, Va.
"ACCSC is aware of the school in Michigan and upon request from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security assisted DHS in its operation by listing the school as being accredited by ACCSC," Michale McComis, the national accrediting agency's executive director, said via email.
The university's fake Facebook page noted a Jan. 28 outreach event in Fremont, Calif., and links to a video purporting to show workers expanding the university's parking lot. A Twitter page with 477 tweets but only 21 followers said classes were canceled on Jan. 23 due to an overnight ice storm. (The social media profiles appeared to have been taken down on Wednesday evening.)
But authorities said the university had no staff, no instructors, no curriculum and no classes. The sting included Homeland Security agents posing as university officials from February 2017 to the end of the investigation earlier this month, The Detroit News reported. Suspects allegedly used Farmington as a “pay to stay” scheme that allowed others to stay in the United States, posing as full-time students earning a degree. It wasn't immediately clear whether any further arrests had been made, or if any deportations of applicants had taken place.
Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, told The Detroit News, “It’s creative and it’s not entrapment,” adding, “The government can put out the bait, but it’s up to the defendants to fall for it.”
The federal government previously has conducted similar stings. In 2016 federal prosecutors said they set up a sham institution called the University of Northern New Jersey as part of an elaborate operation that led to the indictment of 21 people on visa fraud-related charges. Federal officials said the defendants, many of whom worked as recruiters or consultants serving international students, fraudulently obtained or attempted to obtain student or work visas for approximately 1,000 foreign nationals from 26 different countries.