After the reported arrests of hundreds of foreign students at a fake university set up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prominent Democratic lawmakers including Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lambasted what they described as a cruel and corrupt scheme to entrap immigrants.
The Detroit Free-Press reported Wednesday that an additional 90 students at the sham University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, had been arrested by ICE in recent months — bringing the total number of students arrested as part of the ICE sting operation to about 250.
News of the undercover plot first made headlines in January. ICE has said the aim of the operation was to snag immigrants trying to obtain student visas via fraudulent means.
The Farmington students, who reportedly paid around $12,000 per year in tuition and fees to attend the fake school, all entered the U.S. with legal student visas, the Free-Press said this week. They lost their legal status in the country, however, when the school was revealed to be a fiction.
Many of the arrested students ― most of whom hailed from India ― have since been deported to their home countries, the paper reported. But some students are reportedly challenging their deportation, saying they were tricked by ICE officials into attending what they’d believed to be a real educational institution.
In a Wednesday tweet, Warren, the senator from Massachusetts and one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, decried the undercover scheme as “cruel and appalling.”
“These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them,” she wrote.
Ocasio-Cortez also criticized the ICE scheme in a tweet.
She excoriated lawmakers who greenlit the release of billions in taxpayer dollars to both ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this year, saying that taxpayer dollars had been used to pay for questionable operations like the Farmington sting.
“I saw members voting YES [without] even a summary of the bill. Nobody cared then how we’d pay for it,” the freshman congresswoman from New York said. “Now ICE is setting up fake universities to trap students. Yet we were called radical for opposing it.”
“None of the politicians who brand themselves ‘fiscally responsible’ ever raise concern about rushing to shower ICE & CBP [with billions of dollars] with 0 guardrails or oversight,” Ocasio-Cortez added in another tweet. “None of them ask about how we pay for corrupt contracts or mass incarceration. Ask yourself why that is.”
ICE officials have claimed that people who applied to the University of Farmington ― which had claimed to be a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution” ― should have quickly realized that the university was fake as no classes in a physical location were offered.
“Each of the foreign citizens who ‘enrolled’ and made ‘tuition’ payments to the university knew that they would not attend any actual classes, earn credits or make academic progress toward an actual degree in a particular field of study — a ‘pay to stay’ scheme,” according to indictments filed by ICE in January.
Officials said they also lured recruiters ― eight of whom were indicted on criminal charges ― to participate in the scheme. The recruiters allegedly told some students not to advertise their enrollment in Farmington because the school did not have proper certification and were paid to obtain fraudulent academic records from applicants, Vox reported.
An ICE spokesperson said in a statement this week that the Farmington operation, as well as another ICE-operated “university” launched in New Jersey in 2013, had meant to deter people who might try to cheat the visa system to enter the U.S.
“It provides [the Department of Homeland Security] with first-hand evidence of fraud and enhances its understanding of the way in which exploitation networks develop to facilitate fraud,” Carissa Cutrell told Vox of the undercover schemes. “This, in turn, informs and improves DHS’s efforts to uncover fraud at schools where the students, and potentially school officials, seek to perpetuate violations either explicitly or through more subtle manipulation of the regulations.”
Questions have been raised, however, whether such sting operations are the best use of the agency’s resources.
“Normally, we would like our law enforcement agencies to be investigating crimes that are already occurring as opposed to spending time and resources in creating elaborate sting operations,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the liberty and national security program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told The Guardian in February.
“It’s an open question as to whether this is the best use of ICE’s resources,” Patel continued. “I think these days we have a lot of open questions about whether the way ICE is responding is a logical response to the problems this country faces.”
Attorneys representing the students arrested in the Farmington case have argued that ICE used unfair means to entrap their clients by advertising the sham school as having proper accreditation.
Ravi Mannam, an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta, told The New York Times in January that some of Farmington’s students had already completed legitimate master’s programs in the U.S. but had applied to the Michigan institution as a “stopgap measure” as they awaited approval for specialty work visas.
A number of other students had plans to enroll at other U.S. schools before discovering that their intended programs had lost accreditation, Mannam said. These students had then applied to Farmington, which they’d believed focused more on work experience than academic classes.
“The government utilized very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution,” Mannam told the Times.
Rahul Reddy, another attorney who represented some of the students, told the Free-Press that some had transferred out of the university after realizing that the school didn’t offer any on-site classes.
But that didn’t appear to matter to ICE. Those students were arrested also, Reddy said.
In her criticism of the fake university scheme, Ocasio-Cortez warned of the heavy “cost of oppression” and injustice.
“Look out for those in politics who like to label themselves ‘fiscally responsible,’ yet only seem to care about the price of justice ― not the cost of oppression,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Everything has a price. And an unjust society is far costlier than one that invests in & values all people.”