A Fake University

International students say they were recruited by the University of Farmington -- set up by the U.S. government as part of a sting operation focused on student visa fraud -- after their institutions lost accreditation. Some blame the government for setting the students up.

December 10, 2019
 
The University of Farmington logo

Read the court documents in the cases of the individuals who pleaded guilty to recruiting students to the University of Farmington -- a fake university set up by a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of a sting operation to catch visa fraudsters -- and you’ll notice a pattern.

A number of the “recruiters” turned to Farmington after the colleges they attended lost accreditation, or, to put it more precisely, when the U.S. Department of Education revoked recognition for the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools in December 2016, leaving them and about 16,000 other international students enrolled at institutions without federally recognized accreditation (ACICS’s recognition has since been reinstated).

The students, all citizens of India, subsequently enrolled at Farmington. They began recruiting their friends and collecting commissions from the fake university, which had no classes and no professors and was staffed with federal agents.

One of the "recruiters," Santosh Reddy Sama -- whom the government describes in court documents as "the greatest driving force behind the enormity of the fraud" -- claims in court documents he received an email from Farmington “almost immediately” after his previous institution lost accreditation.

“Without the original email targeted to Mr. Sama after his school, Silicon [Valley] University lost accreditation, we may not be here in this case,” says the defendant’s sentencing memo. Sama, who was accused by the government of making more than $150,000 by recruiting students to Farmington, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit visa fraud and to harbor aliens for profit, and was sentenced to prison for two years.

“The day after the schools were disaccredited, ICE, which is running this scam university, sent emails to all of these students, soliciting them,” said David S. Steingold, the lawyer for another individual convicted in the case, Bharath Kakireddy. Kakireddy was enrolled in Silicon Valley University and came to Farmington looking for what Steingold describes as a "stopgap" solution to maintain his immigration status after the ACICS revocation. (Kakireddy subsequently gained admission to New England College, and on Jan. 11 -- about three weeks before the indictments in the case were unsealed -- requested a transfer, according to court documents. The government claims that Kakireddy collected at least $32,000 in fees from fellow "students" he recruited to Farmington. He pleaded guilty and received an 18-month prison sentence.)

"It was almost as if it was planned," Steingold said. "It was almost as if they knew when the schools lost their accreditation there’d be thousands and thousands of people here on a student visa from outside the country who are going to be looking for status, who are going to be desperate to stay in the country, because if you have to go back to India, apply there and start the whole process again, suffice it to say it’s going to be a significant disruption of their studies. Since most of them had work-study, they were desperate not just to stay in school, but to stay in their job.”

Inside Higher Ed asked in writing whether ICE investigators targeted Farmington recruiting emails to students at ACICS-accredited institutions following the revocation of ACICS's recognition by the Department of Education. A spokesman for the agency, Carissa Cutrell, did not address the question directly.

"[Homeland Security Investigations] special agents use a variety of law enforcement tactics to uncover exploitation of the student visa system," she said in response to Inside Higher Ed's query. "Students should evaluate all aspects of a school’s offerings before making a decision to enroll."

Cutrell added that, with the exception of English language programs, institutions that lost accreditation through ACICS would still have been eligible to retain their federal certification through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll international students if they submitted additional required documentation in lieu of accreditation.

Several defendants in the case (including Kakireddy) say in court documents that they had just 15 days to transfer to another institution after the ACICS decision or otherwise risk violating their visa status. Cutrell said that after the ACICS decision, SEVP "did not take immediate action but rather notified students to work with their school's designated school officials to take appropriate action to maintain status." She added that typically when an institution loses its certification to enroll international students, the students would have 30 to 60 days to transfer to another institution. A broadcast message from ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program issued in December 2016 indicated that the agency was following the Education's Department's timeline, which gave ACICS-accredited institutions 18 months to find a new accreditor in order to remain eligible for federal aid programs.

In any case, it seems fair to say there may have been confusion about the implications of loss of accreditation on students' visa statuses. And accreditation would have been a critical and time-sensitive factor for students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields with aspirations to work in the U.S. after graduation through the optional practical training (OPT) program. Only students who attend an accredited institution are eligible to apply for the two-year STEM OPT extension, which extends the total OPT period from one year to three. In order to be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, international students must attend an institution that is accredited at the time of their application to the program.

The government’s decision to create a fake university to capture individuals who would seek to abuse the student visa system has been highly controversial. The Farmington operation began in 2015, under the Obama administration, and was prosecuted under the Trump administration.

Some have argued that in creating a fake university that had all the exterior trappings of legitimacy -- Farmington advertised all the appropriate accreditation and regulatory approvals -- the government deceived vulnerable students and preyed on their desperation to stay in the U.S. On Twitter, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren described the sting operation as "cruel and appalling. These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them."

"The notion of solving this problem by creating a fake university, take in millions and lie to students is not acceptable," said Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

"What was the point of this? If you’re worried about schools that aren't real schools, why don’t you go after the accreditors and make sure they're doing a real job policing academic quality?"

ICE defends the creation of a sham university -- the second such Potemkin institution it has created, after the University of Northern New Jersey -- as a legitimate tactic to protect the integrity of the student visa program. Federal authorities describe Farmington as a "pay-to-stay" operation: the "students" paid tuition in order to maintain their immigration status and obtain work authorization, but they were not legitimate students.

"The primary purpose of this operation was to better understand the ways in which recruiters and others abuse the nonimmigrant student visa system," Cutrell said. "HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] special agents made it abundantly clear in their interactions with potential University of Farmington enrollees that the school did not offer academic or vocational programs of any kind. The enrollees came from other U.S. schools and not directly from overseas, so they were familiar with the student visa process and requirements and were free to remain at their current institution or find another school that provided programs of study."

"Undercover schools provide a unique perspective in understanding the ways in which students and recruiters try to exploit the nonimmigrant student visa system," Cutrell continued. "They provide DHS firsthand evidence of fraud and enhance the agency’s understanding of the way in which exploitation networks develop to facilitate fraud. This, in turn, informs and improves DHS’s efforts to uncover fraud at schools and serves as a deterrent to potential violators and as a reminder to all nonimmigrant students to be vigilant in complying with pertinent laws while studying in the United States."​

‘Desperate People’?

Those caught up in the Farmington case fall into two main categories.

There were the eight “recruiters” who made a profit either in the form of tuition credits or cash for recruiting students to Farmington. The majority of them were enrolled in the university themselves and made cash or collected credits toward their tuition by recruiting more "students" like them.

Then were the hundreds of other "students" who enrolled in the fake university but were not accused of profiting by recruiting others.

The “recruiters” were criminally charged and faced jail time, to be followed by deportation. All have pleaded guilty. Of the seven sentenced so far, all have received a sentence of at least a year and a day in jail, a sentence that under current immigration law will bar them from re-entering the U.S. in the future.

The "students," meanwhile, faced deportation for immigration violations. The Detroit Free Press reported late last month that immigration authorities arrested about 250 people in connection with their enrollment at Farmington. Many were deported to India, while others are contesting their removals. One was granted lawful permanent resident status by an immigration judge.

Emily Neumann, an immigration lawyer based in Houston, has advised anywhere between 25 to 50 students, in most cases giving them informal advice on how to voluntarily depart the country. She said the story of nearly every student she advised is the same: the students attended master’s programs in the U.S., then started working through the OPT program. They applied for an H-1B skilled worker visa to extend their stay beyond the one- to three-year period provided by OPT. But their application either wasn't selected via the lottery or was denied for some reason.

"They're coming to the end of their OPT time; they feel they have no other choice -- if they re-enroll in a program they can continue their stay and maybe start again next year," she said. "Then they’re starting to get information about Farmington University -- that not only will they be able to re-enroll to continue their stay, they’ll be able to continue to work."

“When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so they probably had an idea that something was off,” Neumann said. “But when you’ve got -- the school on its website looks legitimate, you’ve got an I-20 form that is properly issued [an I-20 being the government form that institutions issue to prospective international students], it’s saying that it’s accredited and authorized to grant F-1 [student] visas. On paper everything looked right. I don’t think any of them that we worked with were specifically going to Farmington knowing that they wouldn’t have to take any classes, but I think that they’re going there for the work authorization and for the continued ability to stay, and it ultimately turned out there weren’t any classes being given. When you’ve got friends telling you that this is a good option, you’re kind of desperate at that point, and desperate people do things that a reasonable person might not do.”

Neumann added that her law partner, Rahul Reddy, "heard from a number of [Silicon Valley University] students that they were contacted almost immediately after ACICS lost its ability to accredit by recruiters, brokers and agents for Farmington."

No ‘Leg to Stand On’?

The majority of the eight "recruiters" who were criminally charged in the case enrolled in Farmington after attending either Silicon Valley University, which was shut down by California state regulators in 2018, or Northwestern Polytechnic University, according to court documents.

In a 2018 letter, U.S. senator Chuck Grassley described both Silicon Valley and Northwestern Polytechnic institutions as two “highly suspect schools” that bring international students to the U.S. Grassley cited “multiple credible reports suggesting that NPU operates a visa mill.” Both institutions were accredited by ACICS at the time the accreditor lost recognition.

Four of the eight individuals indicted in this case previously attended Northwestern Polytechnic, according to court documents, When asked to comment for this article, a lawyer for NPU, Harmeet K. Dhillon, sent a letter requesting that Inside Higher Ed not include the institution in an article about Farmington, arguing that its inclusion would "unfairly cast a negative light on our client’s institution, mislead readers, and immediately damage NPU."

"As an initial and critical matter, seeing as NPU has no affiliation with the University of Farmington, and for obvious reasons desires no such relationship, we see no legitimate basis to include discussion of NPU in such an article. Indeed, several other media outlets -- including The New York Times, USA Today, and Newsweek -- recently published articles regarding the University of Farmington without any mention of NPU, which is the appropriate choice, particularly in light of the intense negative reactions that the University of Farmington has garnered in both the media and the public eye. While a few outlets have mentioned NPU’s prior student, Prem Rampeesa [one of the eight individuals charged in the case], in discussing the University of Farmington, most have chosen to voluntarily remove or limit references to NPU after we contacted them to explain the falsity of certain claims regarding NPU."

Dhillon added, "Claims that NPU is a 'visa mill' are simply untrue, as evident from the actions of numerous credible agencies and accrediting bodies and, more specifically, on the findings of these agencies and bodies that authorize NPU to fully operate." In addition to its continued accreditation by ACICS and its certification by the state of California to operate, Dhillon noted that NPU recently received candidacy status from the Western Association for Schools and Colleges, the regional accreditor for colleges in California.

Tanul Thakur, a New Delhi-based journalist working on a nonfiction book on Indian H-1B workers, said institutions like NPU and (the recently shutdown) SVU are popular in India as a way for students to maintain their immigration status and work through the curricular practical training (CPT) program if they don't get picked in the H-1B lottery. Thakur said "the list of 15 to 20 questionable institutions is well-known among Indian students. So if one college shuts or gets raided, or comes under heavy scrutiny, then they simply move to the next dubious institution."

"The migratory patterns of students in Farmington -- moving to a 'fake university' from questionable institutions, known to enroll a disproportionate number of international students (and, in essence, purportedly functioning as 'visa mills') -- easily proves that a majority of students knew what they were getting into by signing up as students at Farmington," Thakur said.

In court documents, U.S. attorneys dismissed the idea that one of the defendants in the Farmington case was motivated by a desire “to help foreign national students obtain an education -- including for some students who sought to transfer from schools that were in danger of losing their accreditation."

The government added, in a footnote, "These schools cater to 'students' who want to exploit our foreign student education program. While they are the exception rather than the rule, unfortunately they do exist. Some of the 'pay to stay' schools located around the United States that have been exposed over the years are: Prodee University; Neo-America Language School; Walter Jay M.D. Institute; the American College of Forensic Studies; Likie Fashion and Technology College; Tri-Valley University; Herguan University; the University of Northern Virginia; and the American College of Commerce and Technology." Also in this same footnote, the government linked to a 2016 BuzzFeed article about Northwestern Polytechnic that bore the headline "Inside the College That Abolished the F and Raked in the Cash." (NPU's lawyer wrote that the BuzzFeed article was "riddled with inaccuracies.")

David North, who tracks student visa policy in his capacity as a senior fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for lowering immigration, said of those enrolled in Farmington that they "do not have a leg to stand on."

"If you claimed legal status in the country because you are a student and the organization you went to had never taught you a class, how do you say, 'gee, I’m innocent?'" he asked. "Those folks knew [that] they were getting involved in a nonexistent organization, or it was a university without classes. I can’t be very sympathetic to them."

That said, North suggested law resources could be used to crack down on actual colleges that might be questionable. "One of the things that they might do at considerable less expense is grit their teeth and go after the marginal ones," North said.

"I don’t criticize this sting, but I wish the same kinds of energies were used against these marginal operations."

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