Trump officials defend use of fake university to lure foreign students

Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice are defending a sting operation that critics say was an entrapment scheme to lure foreign nationals into violating immigration law.

ICE, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), came under fire last week following revelations that it created a fake educational institution — the University of Farmington in Michigan — that sponsored foreign nationals for student visas but did not provide classes or counseling. Nearly 250 foreigners, many of them from India on F-1 student visas, have since been arrested on charges of attempting to use paid student enrollment as a means of remaining in the country.

"If the 'students' truly wanted to obtain an education, they would have attended legitimate graduate programs at other universities. This is because the University of Farmington had no teachers, classes, or educational services — and this was no secret," U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider told the Detroit Free Press on Friday. "Instead, the foreign nationals, who were all living and working throughout the United States, were scam artists who committed a fraud upon the United States."

"These students were initially admitted into the United States to attend a school certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, but later transferred to the University of Farmington, which offered no academic or vocational programs of any kind," ICE press secretary Bryan Cox told The Hill in a statement last week. "Since the school did not offer courses or confer degrees, the enrollees were simply using the F-1 program as a pay-to-stay scheme."

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Critics say the fake university's credentials were believable, and even students who checked Farmington's accreditations could have fallen prey to the scheme.

"One of the things that ICE did that may be kind of questionable is in an effort to make this look like a valid real place, they gave it real credentials, the kinds of real credentials that foreign students would be looking [for] to say 'it's right, it's a good place,' like saying it was authorized under the DHS website, getting the accrediting organization to give it accreditation," Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told the Detroit Free Press.

"Those are the first two things that if you're trying to check out a university, you'd want to see," Brown added.

News of the scheme prompted backlash from Democratic lawmakers and immigration activists.

"This organization has gone rogue and doesn't know how to prioritize real threats versus what I would say are actually assets that we could be bringing into our country," Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoStage production 'Americano!' tells the life and struggles of a 'Dreamer' Democratic lawmaker says Trump 'doesn't have full command' on Iran Democratic Congressman: Why Progressives have been pushing for War Powers resolution for months MORE (D-Ariz.) told The Hill last week.

The sting operation follows practices in place at ICE long before President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE took office. In 2016, the agency revealed it had created the University of Northern New Jersey for enforcement purposes. That operation did lead to mass arrests.

According to Cox, eight individuals have pleaded guilty for their role in the pay-to-stay scheme at Farmington. Of the nearly 250 people arrested, the overwhelming majority were granted voluntary departure; some have received final removal orders.

ICE officials argue the school set-up provides information on how students and private institutions try to abuse the student visa system.

"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," said Cox. "In addition, this type of operation serves as deterrent to potential violators and as a reminder to all nonimmigrant students to be vigilant in complying with the pertinent laws while studying in the United States."