The University of Farmington had many of the markings of a real college. It advertised over 20 undergraduate and graduate programs, claiming to be fully accredited and authorized to enroll international students. It reported that 98 percent of students were working full time in their fields of study. It even detailed a history dating back to the early 1950s.
By the time the University of Farmington closed in 2019, students had paid it $6 million in tuition and fees—and many were left stripped of their immigration status, stuck in detention, or deported. It was revealed in January 2019 that Farmington was a fake school set up by a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to "investigate a complex fraud scheme" in the student visa system.
But critics say the ICE sting amounted to "entrapment." On Tuesday, immigration advocates and civil rights activists from over 40 groups sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calling for a federal investigation into the University of Farmington. "The students were detained, and many were placed in removal proceedings in Immigration Court or left the country in fear," the letter explains. "One of the students was awakened in the middle of the night by ICE agents and taken into custody for 45 days without any advance notice."
In their attempt to crack down on visa fraud, federal agents ended up creating an apparatus that was fraudulent to its core. Agents ran the University of Farmington for four years, attracting around 600 students in that time. The school advertised certification by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), indicating to students that it was recognized by ICE as a valid institution. Lawyers representing the affected students say the university "established a physical address, maintained a professional website, issued offers of acceptance, accepted tuition payments, and mailed students I-20 Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status."
Government officials have stated that students claimed to be legitimate, full-time attendees despite knowing that wasn't the case, but former Farmington students maintain that they "were unwitting victims" of the sting. It's undeniable that federal agents employed extreme, deceptive tactics to ensnare foreigners who hoped to study and build lives in the United States. There was even a cruel undercurrent to the way the sting was revealed on social media: The Detroit News reported that after it broke early news about the case, "the university's Facebook page started featuring memes," including one that featured the Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar shouting "It's a trap."
Last year, Reason's Billy Binion interviewed a former Farmington student who was forced to leave the U.S. once ICE revealed the sting. Suraj—name changed to protect his identity—paid Farmington $15,000 in tuition and fees, money he never got back from the government. He opted to leave the country of his own accord, hoping to maximize his chances of a successful return in the future.
Like all but one of the targeted students, Suraj is from India. "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," Suraj's attorney, Anna Nathanson, told Binion. "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."
This week's letter also points to the curious nationality breakdown of affected students, arguing that ICE targeted students for their national origin. "Indian students…were eventually detained without due process," the letter reads. Far from serious offenders who deserved harsh punishment, the ensnared students came to the U.S. legally on valid student visas. According to an anonymous former Farmington student, "International students who were mostly from humble backgrounds and vulnerable because of the broken immigration system, were preyed upon by the government."
Whatever the results of this week's letter, the damage has been done. Lives have been disrupted, taxpayer dollars have been wasted, and a deceitful government scheme has put yet another dark mark on the country's immigration agencies.