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US: ICE defends fake university sting operation

Amid widespread criticism over the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s university sting operation set up to identify bogus agencies and their international student clients, federal law enforcement agencies are defending the undercover operation as “legitimate”.

The bogus university sting operation set up to identify bogus agencies and their international student clients. Image: ICE

"Investigations like these provide firsthand evidence of how people exploit... the system"

The latest reports revealed the total number of international students arrested (many of whom left voluntarily and some of whom were deported) as part of the fake university operation has risen to around 250, meaning a further 90 students have been impacted since the original story broke in early 2019.

In addition, federal prosecutors charged eight men with being recruiters of the students.

“HSI special agents made it abundantly clear… that the school did not offer academic or vocational programs”

In a statement to the Detroit Free Press, the head of the investigative division of ICE in Detroit said the undercover operations targeting students at the Michigan-based University of Farmington was aimed at fighting visa fraud.

Federal prosecutors said that agents with ICE had secretly set up the fake university, which enrolled more than 600 international students, in what the department of justice called a “pay to stay” scheme.

However, a social media storm occurred as the full impact of the sting was revealed, with US representative, Elissa Slotkin commenting that the case “raises a number of serious questions”.

But special agent in charge of the Detroit office of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, Vance Callender, told the Detroit Free Press that “HSI 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 individuals who enrolled in the University of Farmington did so intentionally,” he said in a statement.

Callender told the publication that the students “knew the school did not offer courses or confer degrees, and remained enrolled for about 18 months, even though they never attended one single class”.

“Investigations like these provide firsthand evidence of how people exploit the non-immigrant student visa system,” he added.

Defence attorneys for the students had said they believe they were entrapped and didn’t realise the university was fake when they enrolled, as the university was listed on the ICE website as an approved school and was also listed by an accreditation agency as an accredited school.

However, the US attorney’s office in Detroit – which is prosecuting the recruiters – has also defended the undercover operation.

“This case involved an illegal practice known as ‘pay to stay’ because foreign nationals paid cash for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status as a student – but with no intention of or interest in going to any class,” US attorney, Matthew Schneider, told the Detroit Free Press.

“If the ‘students’ truly wanted to obtain an education, they would have attended legitimate graduate programs at other universities… the University of Farmington had no teachers, classes, or educational services – and this was no secret.”

The case has raised concern that the US is making it more difficult for international students, with the latest Open Doors data revealing international student first time enrolment at US institutions has continued to decline for the third year running.

“International students are a very valuable asset to our country… but, as this and other cases show, the well-intended international student program can be exploited and abused,” Schneider added.

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