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US: Fake ‘uni’ sting could harm int’l numbers

A fake university set up by the US Department of Homeland Security in a bid to catch out foreign nationals who were planning to stay in the country illegally could “hurt the confidence” of genuine international students looking to study in the US.

Visitors to the University of Farmington website have been met with this image since DHS revealed insights to the sting operation. Image: University of Farmington

The university was operated by HSI special agents as part of an undercover operation

As reported by the Detroit News, the Michigan-based University of Farmington had “no staff, no instructors, no curriculum and no classes”, but was utilised by undercover DHS agents as part of an elaborate operation aimed at ensnaring foreign nationals who had initially come to the US on student visas.

“Trying to use international students as bait will hurt the confidence of students and families”

Following the report, Homeland Security Investigations released a  statement revealing that eight people had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud in order to “facilitate hundreds of foreign nationals in illegally remaining and working in the US” by actively recruiting them to enrol into the University.

Unbeknownst to the conspirators, the statement explained, the university was operated by HSI special agents as part of an undercover operation.

“These 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,” HSI Detroit special agent in Charge Steve Francis said in the statement.

DHS accuse the recruiters of assisting international “students” in fraudulently obtaining immigration documents and facilitated the creation of false student records, despite the students having no intention of ever attending class.

“All participants in the scheme knew that the school had no instructors or actual classes,” the statement continued, adding that the defendants collectively profited in excess of a quarter of a million dollars as a result of the scheme.

Official indictments said the university attracted recruiters who were paid thousands of dollars for connecting students to the bogus school, which had a functioning office space in Michigan.

It is also alleged that two of the defendants met with an undercover agent at the university in January 2018 to collect $20,000 for recruiting students, with another collected a further $20,000 in June of that same year.

United States Attorney Matthew Schneider said that while international students can be a valuable asset to the country, “as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused”.

similar scenario played out in 2016 in New Jersey, where DHS set up a fake university to catch criminals involved in student visa fraud.

However executive vice president of global engagement and research at Studyportals, Rahul Choudaha, told The PIE News said there were concerns about using such methods to catch criminals as many international students are still in the process of applying to universities.

“A negative information which suggests that US government is trying to use international students as a bait will hurt the confidence of students and families,” he warned.

“The aspirations for studying in the US remains strong, however, the barriers of immigration keep getting higher which may be prompting some students to circumvent them.”

The number of international students enrolling for the first time at US universities fell by 6.6% during the 2017-18 academic year, with the “anti-immigrant rhetoric” blamed by some for the loss of momentum in student numbers.

But this is not to say anyone should use short-cuts to come to the US, Choudaha added.

“At the same, this sting operation shows that there could be many other students who are being taken advantage of due to lack of trusted information…. access to transparent information can enable students and families to make informed choices and not get lured into the promises of short-cuts,” he said.

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