The U.S. government created a fake university in 2015 to target international students who were willing to commit visa fraud. Now, 40 civil rights groups are calling for a federal investigation into the Department of Homeland Security, stating that the government violated the rights of the students who they say were tricked into the sting operation.
The letter calls on the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties as well as Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta to investigate DHS's operations related to the fake university called the University of Farmington.
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security declined to comment.
"International students who were mostly from humble backgrounds and vulnerable because of the broken immigration system, were preyed upon by the government," an anonymous former Farmington student said in a statement.
Farmington was created to target visa fraud among undocumented international students. It was run by undercover Department of Homeland Security agents for years and attracted nearly 600 students who allegedly used the college as a "pay to stay" scheme, which made them look like students enrolled in full-time programs so they could stay in the U.S.
The operation was exposed in 2019. Former Farmington students had their visa status revoked and could not legally remain in the United States after the fake university was uncovered by the government. Some were arrested and even detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Eight former recruiters for Farmington were charged with participating in a conspiracy to help foreign nationals remain in the U.S illegally.
Overall the former students paid $6 million in tuition and fees to the fake college. Although Farmington did not hold classes or have staff or instructors, the arrangement looked as though it were real because the government created a website displaying details on its programs and nonexistent campus, ran university social media, and even had a commercial building in Farmington Hills, northwest of Detroit.
Farmington also claimed to be accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, which told Inside Higher Ed in 2019 that it had assisted DHS by listing the university as being accredited by ACCSC.
This week's letter alleges that the students were unaware that the university they enrolled in was fake, and that the federal government violated the constitutional rights of the students by terminating their immigration status and detaining some without a hearing. The letter also claims that the federal government had racially targeted the group of students, all of which were from India except for one who was Palestinian.
“The students who enrolled in the University of Farmington were simply attempting to pursue their education at what they believed to be a legitimate and accredited university in the United States. These students suffered great injustice at the hands of ICE. In violation of the Constitution, DHS took and refused to return the thousands of dollars the students spent in tuition and fees to attend the fraudulent university, totaling over six million dollars. Furthermore, DHS acted in violation of federal law by terminating the students’ immigration status and detaining individuals for an extensive period, without so much as an individual hearing,” said the letter.
DHS has held that former Farmington students knowingly broke U.S. immigration law relating to the student visa program. A 2019 article from The Detroit News cited a statement from Derek Benner, who at the time was the acting deputy director for ICE and no longer works for DHS, that said, “the individuals enrolled because they saw an opportunity to avoid any academic requirements and, instead, work full-time, which was a violation of their nonimmigrant status.”
Benner explained the motivation behind the fake university scheme by stating, "The investigation provided HSI with a better understanding of how recruiters and others abuse the nonimmigrant student visa system. This, in turn, informs and improves DHS efforts to uncover fraud at schools, provides insight into networks within the United States that facilitate such abuse, and serves as a deterrent to potential violators both in the short- and long-term."
The Students Couldn't Remain
The students were contacted by DHS in 2019 stating that the university they were attending was fake and the government revoked their visa status, according to Anna Nathanson, a lawyer for Norris Law Group, which is currently representing the students in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government.
Nathanson said some of the students were deported, however, when asked how many, she said, "I don’t feel comfortable providing that."
A complaint filed to the DHS's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in April alleges that DHS had taken, "thousands of dollars they [the students] spent in tuition and fees to the fake university. Additionally, in violation of the constitution and federal law, the DHS determined that the students knowingly committed visa fraud, terminated their F-1 student visa status, and detained several students with no advance notice."
Supporters of the former students do not believe that the complaint will result in much change.
"While it's a symbolic gesture, it often does not result in any material results because of the lack of power that [DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties] possesses," said Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, who joined the letter.
Nathanson said that most of the students have returned to India, and have been automatically denied when they attempt to reapply for an academic or work visa to the U.S. because of their status as former Farmington students. "They are being blacklisted right now by U.S. immigration authorities," said Nathanson.
A class-action lawsuit was filed against the U.S. government in September 2020 in the name of Teja Ravi, a former Farmington student. This specific lawsuit is attempting to recoup the $6 million paid by the former students attending Farmington.
"Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta has the power to immediately restore the over six million dollars in tuition money stolen from these students. By doing so, she could begin to improve the current administration's dismal track record on immigration," said Sridaran.
Nathanson said that many students tried to enroll in other colleges once they found out that they were not receiving classes from Farmington, but Farmington officials, who were actually DHS agents, would not sign off for them to transfer.
"They were paying for classes but they weren't receiving the classes, so a lot of them researched other universities and got admitted to other universities but then the University of Farmington staff they were interacting with refused to sign off on their transfers," said Nathanson. After they were denied the ability to transfer, she said that the students were essentially stuck.
"If they're not attending a school, they lose their visa. At that point, they're pretty disempowered. There’s not a lot they can do" said Nathanson.
In 2019, Vice President Kamala Harris, who at the time a was senator, said on Twitter that the operation "isn't just cruel" but also "a waste of taxpayer dollars" and called for officials to be held accountable.