Since January of this year, around 250 students at a fake university in Michigan have been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on immigration violations. In March, ICE reported that only 161 students had been arrested.
The arrests are part of “Paper Chase,” a sting operation that lured foreign-born would-be students to enroll at the University of Farmington, a fake university offering graduate programs in technology and computer studies. The “school” was created by the Department of Homeland Security and is believed to have collected—and kept—millions of dollars in fees paid by students.
Students, most of which were from India, enrolled at the University of Farmington and had legally entered the U.S. on student visas. The fake university, where over 600 students were enrolled, was staffed with undercover agents posing as school officials and was shut down in January.
According to records filed with Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), the school was officially incorporated in January 2016. The school was legitimately accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.
Of the total arrested, “nearly 80% were granted voluntary departure and departed the United States,” according to a statement given to the Detroit Free Press by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations’s (HSI) Detroit office. Around 10% of the arrested students were issued a final order of removal, ordered removed by an immigration judge, or “given an expedited removal by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”
About 10% are filing for relief or “contesting their removals with Executive Office for Immigration Review.”
Only one student has been allowed to stay thanks to an immigration judge who granted the student lawful permanent resident status while two students who were voluntarily sent back to India after a voluntary departure agreement with ICE, were denied reentry after trying to return this year.
Detroit Free Press reports that students enrolled through Curricular Practical Training (CPT), a program that “allows students to work in the U.S through a F-1 visa program for foreign students.” Some students had even transferred to the University of Farmington after their former schools lost their accreditation status, something that would immediately threaten their ability to remain in the United States.
According to attorneys for the arrested students, the U.S. government unfairly entrapped the unsuspecting students by advertising the university as legitimate, including being accredited. “They preyed upon on them,” said Rahul Reddy, a Texas attorney who represented and advised some of the arrested students.
Ali Milani, the University of Farmington’s president, said in an email that the graduate program cost around $1,000 a month. According to Reddy, the U.S. government “made a lot of money” during the sting and, at least so far, no one has filed a lawsuit against the government for keeping the money and entrapping the unsuspecting students.
That may have something to do with the fact that attorneys for both ICE and the Department of Justice have maintained that students knew—or should have known—that the university was fake.
During a hearing for Prem Rampeesa, one of eight recruiters for the school, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Helms wrote:
“Their true intent could not be clearer. 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.”
But according to the Times of India, there was “no way for students to verify its authenticity.” For most students, seeing the school accredited was probably all the proof they needed to enroll.
Employees working in the same building that housed the fake school have been quoted as saying students came “asking what what time they open, what time they close.”
“I feel sad for them because I know some of them didn’t know,” said Steven Jeffers, an employee in the building. Jeffers reported seeing students arrive with backpacks and asking questions about classes.
Despite no lawsuits against the government for entrapping the students, seven out the eight recruiters have been sentenced to anywhere from 12-18 months in prison, with the eighth recruiter scheduled to sentencing in January of next year. Rampeesa was sentenced on November 19 and will be deported to India at the conclusion of his prison sentence
According to Rampeesa’s attorney, the recruiter with no prior criminal record, was just trying to “help his family back home.”
And it turns out the scandal is all to familiar to Rampeesa, who, as it turns out, is also a victim of the University of Farmington. The 27-year-old came to the U.S. legally on a student visa before earning a master’s degree in computer science at Northwestern Polytechnic University. But after the school lost its accreditation, Rampeesa’s immigration status was at risk. Having already spent $40,000 to attend Northwestern Polytechnic, Rampeesa “was desperate to find a way to stay in the United States,” according to his attorney.
Sama, one of the eight recruiters, actually recruited Rampeesa to attend the fake school, telling him he would receive tuition credits if he recruited more students. Both Sama and Rampeesa thought they were employed by the school and working with university officials who, it turns out, were actually undercover Department of Homeland Security agents.
During Rampeesa’s sentencing, that same assistant U.S. Attorney called for a sentence of 24 to 30 months saying, “It’s important to send a message … this type of crime will not be tolerated.”
In 2016, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges likewise certified the University of Northern New Jersey during a sting operation resulting in the arrest of 29 agents and the deportation of around 1000, mostly Indian, students.