In January 2016, the University of Farmington was born. By 2018, more than 600 students had enrolled, paid tuition, and matriculated. Come January 2019, the entire student body received formal correspondence from the college: The school was not actually a school at all.
It was a ruse, conceived by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and executed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), allegedly to crack down on "visa fraud." Richly ironic is that the fraudulent operations were set up and maintained by the government itself, which duped immigrants into applying for student visas that would then be revoked when the curtain came up on the scheme. In the same letter, the students—who had just found out they were not, in fact, real students—were given one last instruction. They would need to leave the country immediately, or face arrest and deportation.
"I was in complete shock. I didn't understand what to do," says Suraj, whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity. He moved to the U.S. in 2015 to attend Northwestern Polytechnic University, where he earned a degree and nabbed a job as an IT business consultant. With his student visa set to expire, he decided to apply for a master's program, which is when he found Farmington, located in southeast Michigan near where he lived at the time.
He applied and was accepted, shelling out $15,000 in tuition and fees—money that was pocketed by the government. He has not recouped any of those funds.
In September 2020, many such victims filed a lawsuit in federal claims court. The Trump administration sought to dismiss it. In February, the Biden administration took the same position.
Yet President Joe Biden campaigned on making the U.S. immigration system "humane" again. Perhaps the deepest schism on the 2020 campaign trail between then-candidate Biden and former President Donald Trump was on immigration policy—a division the former repeatedly furnished as proof of his upstanding values. Vice President Kamala Harris was very much in agreement. As a presidential candidate herself, she specifically turned her attention to the Farmington debacle:
DHS created a fake university & accepted immigrants on student visas. When it was shut down, DHS tried deporting some of these students because they weren't enrolled in school.
This isn't just cruel, it's a waste of taxpayer dollars. Officials must be held accountable for this. https://t.co/7A5m3L7LV7
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) November 30, 2019
How things change. In a motion to dismiss filed February 24, the Biden administration claimed sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that protects the federal government from certain sorts of lawsuits unless they consent to being sued.
"It might be business as usual to just defend the government, even when the government has done horrible things," says Anna Nathanson, an attorney with the Norris Law Group, who is representing Farmington victims in their class-action suit. "But that's not what's right. That's not what is just. Is that what we can expect from the Biden-Harris administration, this type of abuse of people and the lack of willingness to correct the government's mistakes when the government causes grave harm to people?"
As Shikha Dalmia reported in Reason in 2019, Farmington's operation pulled out all the stops. Its now-defunct website boasted various bachelor's and master's programs, a 10:1 student-faculty ratio, and accreditation by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. Most importantly, it claimed the university was officially certified by DHS's Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)—the stamp of approval that a school is recognized by ICE—leaving people like Suraj little reason to believe that they had applied to a fake college.
"Located in the heart of the automotive and advanced manufacturing center of Southeast Michigan, the University of Farmington provides students from throughout the world a unique educational experience," reads the site. "Our dynamic business administration and STEM curriculum allows students to rapidly apply their knowledge; preparing them to succeed in an ever-globalizing economy. Our education model combines traditional classroom instruction and distributed learning with a cooperative educational experience, including externships, professionally based research, and practical training."
Though Farmington enrollees came to the U.S. on legal student visas—with some even transferring to the college from real universities—all were ordered to leave. About 250 of those students have since been arrested in connection with the fake school. While a handful attempted to fight their removals, many have been deported and will face an extreme uphill battle if they ever want to enter the U.S. again. Others voluntarily exited the country in hopes of maximizing a chance of return.
Suraj was one of the latter. "I had so many investments going on," he tells Reason, including a job and a home, which he upped and left the very next day. "Everything came crashing down. I had to start everything from scratch."
Within 24 hours, he was on his way back to India. Curiously, with the exception of one Palestinian individual, every student caught up in the ordeal also came from India. Perhaps there's a reason for that: "The sense I got was that there's some anti-Indian bias at ICE, where they felt that Indian people in general were taking advantage of the student visa program," notes Nathanson. "I think the ICE definition of 'taking advantage of the program' is using the program…I don't know why the response to that is to make a university which looks totally legitimate, and have people pretextually violate the visa program."
Suraj says that he'd like to come back to the U.S. At the very least, however, he'd like his $15,000 back, a financial burden he is still struggling with, notwithstanding the fact that he never received any actual education from the University of Farmington.
Should the victims lose, Nathanson forecasts some dire implications. "They're being crushed by that student debt. A lot of them used their families' savings to pay the Farmington tuition," she says. "It's also pretty devastating emotionally and mentally to be tricked like this. And for some people, they were also physically deported, put through jail, put through detention. Everyone I've spoken to is unfortunately having really severe mental health consequences still. People are really depressed. People tell me this made them suicidal. It's really, really bad."
But the effects of a decision deferential to the government would likely have an impact on far more people than the Farmington students: "It would mean that law enforcement agencies could make any contracts they want and then violate them," adds Nathanson, making it even harder to sue the government and government agents than it already is.
I ask Suraj how this has affected his mental health. Is he one of the students Nathanson alludes to? "Emotionally, I don't know how I can describe it," he answers. "I had planned a future in the U.S." In 2019, he had also planned his present: the job, apartment, and community he was forced to abandon overnight. Suraj won't get that back. But he can still have that future—should the Biden administration choose to live up to its most basic promises.