US universities sympathise with controversial student visa sting

Creation of fake university seen as worrying but ultimately justified by sector leaders

February 9, 2019
Optical illusion
Source: Alamy

Opinion has been split in the US over a sting operation in which federal officials created a fake university to arrest 130 students on visa charges.

Some lawyers and academics have expressed concern over the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agency’s use of a fictional private institution, the University of Farmington, in a two-year undercover operation in Michigan. They claim that the 130 students, all but one of whom were from India, were misled by federal agents into illegal enrolments.

But university leaders, who have long protested harsh government policies towards immigrants, have declined to offer major objections.

Amer Zahr, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Detroit-Mercy who is representing one of the arrested students, described the Farmington operation as a “really disturbing act by the government”.

But Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, took a different view.

“If you are a legitimate college, the idea that the federal government would set up a fake school is deeply unsettling,” he said. “But scam operations exist in our society, and their impact undermines legitimate operators.”

Visa rules allowing foreign students to remain in the US are complicated, but generally permit them to stay as long as they are actively attending college. Those rules, however, do afford latitude in how much time the students can spend working versus time in class, and some colleges specialise in providing foreign students with maximum flexibility. Some of those institutions are widely understood to skirt those rules to the point of being what many in higher education regard as “visa mills” that collect tuition fees in return for visa eligibility.

Ice agents set up Farmington with the intent of creating such a visa mill, and have also arrested eight private recruiters who guided students to the institution. All the students arrested “had no intention of attending school, nor attended a single class, and were not bona fide students”, according to an agency spokesman who said the accused “knew that the school had no instructors or actual classes”.

Professor Zahr and Russell Abrutyn, an immigration attorney who has been helping some of the students, challenged this, claiming that students had been showing up at Farmington’s Detroit site expecting classes. Mr Abrutyn said that the fake university gave every outward appearance of legitimacy, and that Ice even listed it on a website of recognised institutions.

Professor Zahr said that students asking about the lack of classes were assured by Ice agents posing as university officials that modules were temporarily oversubscribed, and that their visa status would remain in good standing while they were enrolled and waiting.

Mr Hartle said he expected such facts to be adjudicated. “The government has every right to use every legal tool in its arsenal to catch crooks,” he said. “Whether or not federal officials coloured within the lines that the law permits is something that the courts will rule on.”

Professor Zahr warned that may not happen, as many of the arrested students have already left the country, having been warned by the authorities that a quick voluntary departure should spare them from a forced removal that would mean a long disqualification from any future return to the US.

It is not the first time that federal officials have conducted such an operation. A similar sting during the Obama administration, involving a so-called University of Northern New Jersey, led to the arrests of 21 recruiters and the identification of more than 1,000 enrolled students, many of whom were deported.

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