Indian Students Who Enrolled in Fake University Run by ICE Can Sue the Government, Court Rules

A federal appeals court ruled that the government is not immune from a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by foreign students duped into enrolling into a fake school run by ICE.


Hundreds of foreign students who enrolled at a Michigan university that turned out to be a sting operation run by federal immigration officials can sue the government to recoup their tuition, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled on June 25 that the U.S. government wasn't immune from a 2020 lawsuit filed by Teja Ravi, a former student at the fake "University of Farmington," on behalf of himself and other students, because it entered into contracts with hundreds of students like Ravi for services that it never delivered.

The ruling overturns a 2022 lower court decision dismissing Ravi's lawsuit and remands it back to the lower court for further consideration. Both the Trump and Biden administrations argued that the government was shielded from Ravi's suit by sovereign immunity. 

The three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the government was not immune and had not sufficiently demonstrated its argument that its contract with Ravi wasn't enforceable because it never intended to honor the agreement in the first place.

"The government relies on the notion that, because it was only pretending to operate a university, there could not have been intent to contract on its part, even though it took (and has kept) the money Mr. Ravi he paid for the offered education, and it makes that assertion even accepting the assumption, required at the present stage of the case, that Mr. Ravi intended to obtain the education for which he was paying," the court wrote. "The argument is that even when there is an objectively clear offer and acceptance, with acceptance in the form of paying money to the offeror, there is no contract enforceable against the offeror, for want of mutuality of intent, as long as the offeror had its fingers crossed behind its back when making the offer and accepting the money."

Attorney Anna Nathanson, who is representing Ravi, said in a press release that "the University of Farmington students and their legal team are ecstatic that the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled to allow the 600 students unjustly targeted by this fake ICE university to have their day in court." 

Michigan news outlets first revealed in 2019 that the "University of Farmington" was a sting set up by a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target pay-to-stay student visa fraud.

ICE opened the southeast Michigan school in 2016. It would ultimately lure in around 600 people on student visas, all of them except one from India, and collect roughly $6 million in tuition and fees from them.

The government claimed that the foreign students were made well aware by recruiters and fake school officials that they were paying for classes and coursework that didn't exist, but plaintiffs in the lawsuit say they were "unwitting victims," entrapped by a school that had all the outward appearances of being a legitimate institution.

The university had a website, a regularly updated Facebook page, and a fake history dating back to the 1950s. Records obtained by local news outlets showed Farmington was incorporated by the state of Michigan and listed by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. More importantly, it was certified by the Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which as Shikha Dalmia wrote for Reason in 2019, is the "ultimate seal of official approval," for foreign students looking for an American education.

Once exposed, ICE quickly shut down the school and arrested roughly 250 former students. Many were deported, while the rest voluntarily left the country. There was an element of callousness to the whole affair: The Detroit News reported that after it broke the news that Farmington was a sham, "the university's Facebook page started posting memes," including one that featured the Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar shouting "It's a trap."

Reason's Billy Binion interviewed a former Farmington student who paid the fake school $15,0000 in tuition and fees. He opted to voluntarily leave the U.S. to maximize his chances to legally return sometime in the future. He never got his money back.

The Farmington sting outraged civil rights groups. In 2022, 40 such groups signed a letter calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to investigate potential civil rights violations that resulted from the sting operation.

"This decision is not just a legal win, but a moral one," Prudhivi Raj, a former student at the university, said in a press release after last week's ruling. "It underscores that no one, not even the government, is above the fundamental principles of fairness and honesty."