130 students, 129 of which were Indian, along with eight recruiters also of Indian descent, were arrested under a sting operation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). The sting operation was conducted as part of an investigation on immigration fraud.
According to ICE, the eight recruiters are charged with “conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit.” The recruiters also helped the students in “fraudulently obtaining immigration documents from the school and facilitated the creation of false student records, including transcripts, for the purpose of deceiving immigration authorities.” If the students are convicted, they could face deportation.
In a statement released by Homeland Security Investigations special agent, Steve Francis, “Homeland Security Investigations special agents uncovered a nationwide network that grossly exploited U.S. immigration laws. 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.”
“All participants in this scheme knew that the University of Farmington had no instructors or classes (neither online nor in-person) and were aware they were committing a crime in an attempt to fraudulently remain in the United States.”
The arrests of the 129 Indian students has caused a diplomatic spat between India and the US. In a statement released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, they expressed concern for the well-being of the Indian students; “Our concern over the dignity and well-being of the detained students and the need for immediate consular access for Indian officials to the detainees was reiterated.” The Indian Embassy has also released hotlines to give help to those affected.
There are also concerns that the students may have been duped by the recruiters, unaware that they were committing any crime. They have also urged the US to release them at the earliest possibility from detention and without deportation. They said that students “should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them.” Furthermore, they argued that the students had no way of verifying the college’s legitimacy online.
In India, local reaction has been in support of the students. They believe that the students are innocent and they were not aware of attending a fraudulent university. There is consensus among academics in India that ICE acted in an unscrupulous way by setting up a fake university to catch students.
Subhash Patankar, a lecturer in the engineering department at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalay, a state university in Indore said that “the US government set the snare. If the students are deported, it would antagonise the student community both in India and America at a time when countries like Canada and Australia are opening their doors and taking positive measures to attract the pool of talent from India.”
Surendra Bhatti, another academic, weighed in, stating that “it was not the right thing to do…Students are being treated like criminals. They are the victims of a scam.”
Some also felt that the incident could cause less students opting to go to America. Asfia Zafar, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi said that “the incident has created panic…The US move has reinforced the fear among students and guardians here that the environment in America is uncertain and hostile.”
Speaking to Detroit Free Press, immigration Attorney, Ravi Mannam, said the fake university “kind of hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous master’s programs.”
ICE argues that the arrested students were not enrolled in a full course of study in accordance with federal regulations.
The fake college, University of Farmington, was set up in 2015 as part of an undercover operation called “Paper Chase”. It has been in operation for nearly two years under the Homeland Security Investigations. Its goal was to catch foreign citizens who travelled to the US on student visas and then transferred to sham universities to extend their stay. These universities are called “visa mills” or “pay-to-stay” schemes.
It was reported that the fictional college also created its own website with stock photos, complete with fictional staff and Facebook page with non-existent events to make it appear more legitimate, and difficult to discern from a legitimate university.
This isn’t the first time ICE has been accused of resorting to such tactics. In 2016, ICE set up fictional university of the Northern New Jersey and arrested 21 people in connection to the case with more 1,000 students mostly from China or India.
It also offered online courses and curricular practical training (CPT) that allows for visa holders to work full-time while studying, as well having previously advertised $8,500 a year for undergraduate students and $11,000 a year for graduate students.
This is part of a greater crackdown on illegal immigration as the Trump administration hardens its stance on those who have been staying illegally or have overstayed their visas.