More than 250 foreign students have been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a sting operation against "pay-to-stay visa mills"—fake universities that handle transcripts and paperwork so that foreign students can maintain their visa status without actually attending college.
But sources connected to the students say the operation, which involved ICE setting up its own fake university, lured in a number of students who had done nothing wrong. Some of those students were even tricked into quitting legitimate schools in favor of the feds' fake university. Meanwhile, real visa mills—the operation's supposed target—remain unaffected.
The latest chapter in the story began in 2015, when ICE decided to crack down on visa mills. The agency created the University of Northern New Jersey, a fake college that held no classes and offered no instruction. If students paid recruiters between $3,000 and $12,000, they could "enroll" and show that they were taking the course load needed to satisfy the requirements of their F-1 student visas and, more importantly, to obtain Curricular Practical Training (CPT) status.
Usually, F-1 recipients are limited to 20 hours of weekly on-campus employment. But CPT status allows those who have completed one year of academic work to take jobs off campus if the work is integral to their area of study. For instance, nursing students who need practical training to complete the requirements for their degrees can work in a hospital and get paid for it.
The New York Times reported in 2016 that some University of Northern New Jersey students genuinely didn't know what they were getting into. Many students had obtained jobs but didn't win an H-1B visa in the annual lottery, which gets twice as many applicants as there are visas handed out each year. So the CPT became a stopgap way of obtaining work status until they could try again for an H-1B.
The sensible policy response would have been for Congress to raise or scrap the annual H-1B cap so that foreign students with job offers are assured of work authorization. This would instantly throw all the visa mills out of business. But given the enthusiasm for enforcement, ICE decided to play detective via elaborate stings.
The 2015 New Jersey sting resulted in over 1,000 students losing their visas and being thrown out of the country. But according to Rahul Reddy, a Texas attorney who specializes in employment-based immigration law, the primary targets were professional recruiters acting as middlemen between students and fraudulent universities.
ICE's latest sting, which started just as the University of Northern New Jersey one was wrapping up, is different. This time, Reddy insists, the agency went to elaborate lengths to target students themselves.
In 2016, ICE created the University of Farmington, which was physically located on Northwestern Highway in Southeast Michigan—a major commercial thoroughfare with doctor's offices, real estate companies, restaurants, and more. Its website billed the now-disbanded university as a STEM school offering various graduate degrees and claimed it had a history dating back to the 1950s. Notably, it also claimed that the school was Students and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) approved, referring to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) list of all the schools that immigration authorities recognize. Separately, ICE enlisted an accreditation agency to list the school on its website, according to the Detroit Free Press' Niraj Warikoo, who also found that the university was incorporated by Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
All this meant that a foreign student who looked at the university website would have had no reason to suspect that it was an illicit visa mill. ICE even coordinated with DHS to ensure that the enrolled students would show up on the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a federal database that lists all foreign students in good standing with immigration authorities. For foreign students looking for an American education, SEVIS is the ultimate seal of official approval.
With all this architecture in place, ICE agents impersonating university officials started recruiting students by offering them cheaper courses and quicker processing of their CPT status, says Jay Talluri, president of the Telugu Association of North America, an Indo-American group. Undercover ICE officials also offered a hefty commission to students, mostly from India, who recruited their friends. In all, it managed to enroll 600 people.
Accepting the commission was clearly illegal, since the terms of the F-1 visa bar foreign students from working off-campus for pay, especially in areas unrelated to their studies. But ICE didn't spare those on the other end of those recruitment efforts, either. It terminated the SEVIS authorization of everyone enrolled in the University of Farmington on the evening of January 29, 2019. Early the next morning, it started making house arrests.
By December, 250 people had been snagged. (The rest of the student body has likely fled the country.) About 80 percent of the 250 arrestees were granted "voluntary" departure and banned from the United States for many years. Another 10 percent are being deported. The rest are contesting their removal orders.
ICE claimed in its indictment that "each of the foreign citizens who 'enrolled' and made 'tuition' payments to the University" knew that the program was "not approved by the DHS" and was "illegal." This is simply not true. The university was listed as accredited on state and federal sites. Moreover, the DHS gave enrollees SEVIS authorization, which should not have been possible if it weren't an authorized school.
Indeed, Warikoo notes that some of the students jumped to the University of Farmington from schools that had lost accreditation for any number of reasons. They likely thought switching would allow them to fulfill their visa requirements. (It's hard to say for sure, because none of the students are talking to the press.) Others actually tried to transfer out of the University of Farmington when they realized that it was not holding classes and they were making no progress toward their diplomas. But ICE has not spared them either.
Even more troubling is that ICE actually lured some students from legitimate universities with promises of cheaper courses. Foreign students are particularly vulnerable to such pitches, because their options to work and pay for their education are severely restricted by visa rules. Hence, many rely on families back home for support and are always on the lookout for ways to reduce the burden on their loved ones. ICE collected millions of dollars in fees from these students, Warikoo reported, and won't say whether it has any intention of reimbursing them. (ICE did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The fundamental question is what the government hoped to accomplish with this elaborate scheme. Even from a pure enforcement standpoint, wouldn't it make more sense to go after existing visa mills rather than launching new fake institutions? Instead of turning students into recruiters by throwing temptation in their way, ICE could have gone after professional recruiters. Nothing the agency has done so far has put a single illegitimate university out of business.