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US: Social media storm as full impact of fake university sting revealed

Reaction on social media to the full extent of the US fake university sting operation set up to identify bogus agencies and their international student clients has been extensive.

University of FarmingtonSix of the eight recruiters involved have already been sentenced to jail. But students claim to have been duped. Photo: DHS/ University of Farmington

Some students were ordered removed by an immigration judge, and others "were given an expedited removal by US Customs and Border Protection

New press reports reveal the total number of international students arrested (many of whom left voluntarily and some of whom were deported) as part of the University of Farmington sting operation organised by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has risen to around 250.

This means a further 90 students have been impacted since the original story broke in early 2019. As reported by The PIE, the majority of students impacted were from India. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic congresswoman known widely as AOC, called for ICE to be abolished. 

In January 2019, federal authorities announced that the Michigan-based University of Farmingham was created by the US Department of Homeland Security. The DHS created the university to catch out recruiters – and ostensibly students – who were violating US immigration rules. 

Of the 250 students, “nearly 80% were granted voluntary departure and departed the United States,” the Detroit office of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations explained in a press statement, according to the Detroit Free Press. 

HSI Detroit said that out of the remaining 20%, about half of students have received a final order of removal. Some students were ordered removed by an immigration judge, and others “were given an expedited removal by US Customs and Border Protection”.

“[The US] trapped vulnerable people who just wanted to maintain [legal immigration] status”

The university, which claimed to offer graduate programs in technology and computer studies, had 600 students enrolled. 

Marketed as a hub for STEM students who wanted to enrol and not “interrupt their careers,” the University of Farmington had a fake name, website and seal. The US government reportedly listed Farmington as eligible to enrol foreign students. 

The Times of India picked up the story when it initially landed, claiming there was no way of working out via online research that the institution was bogus. It cited an interview with one impacted student and reports from US citizens working in the same building that students were turning up with backpacks asking about classes.

However, in the indictment filed relating to this case, there was significant detail on the fact that the recruiters who were engaging with the students did refer to it as a “pay-to-stay” scheme; it also states that “the defendants facilitated the creation of false records, including transcripts”.

The same indictment reveals the recruiters earned a quarter of a million dollars – but gives no detail on what happened to the rest of the monies paid.

Six of the eight recruiters have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to jail, with two others awaiting sentence, as reported by Times of India.

They were reportedly aware that the university was a sham, but not all students were, claim lawyers. Rahul Reddy, a Texas attorney who represented or advised some of those students arrested, told the media that the US government had “preyed upon on them”.

“[The US] trapped the vulnerable people who just wanted to maintain (legal immigration) status,” he said.

He added that two of the students who were sent back to India through a voluntary departure agreement with ICE were denied entry into the US after they tried to reenter this year.

2020 presidential candidate, senator Elizabeth Warren branded the move by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as “cruel and appalling”.

The 600 students who enrolled at Farmington, a northern suburb of Detroit, were charged roughly $12,000 a year. One student quoted in the Indian press was already in the US but seeking ways to continue to study and stay in the country via the CPT program.

Local media reported that lawyers for ICE and the Department of Justice say the students should have known the enterprise wasn’t genuine because there were no class-based activities.

“If it were truly about obtaining an education, the university would not have been able to attract anyone”

Assistant US Attorney Brandon Helms wrote in court papers: “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.”

A statement released by the Indian government in February said that assistance was being provided to the Indian students to help them obtain legal advice.

“[The] Government of India continues to attach high priority to the well-being of the detained students and will remain constantly engaged with the US authorities and other stakeholders, to address the issue,” it read.

A similar sting operation set up by DHS in New Jersey in 2016 resulted in lawyers ruling that those students were victims of fraud.

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