It’s website featured a Latin motto and a crest. The only public profile of its president, Dr. Ali Milani, who is now known to be a fictional character created by federal agents, was a scarcely populated LinkedIn profile. It operated out of a singular office suite within a commercial complex in Farmington Hills, Mich. and had no staff, no curriculum and no classes.
These statements describe the University of Farmington, a fake school set up by the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 as part of a sting operation to bust foreigners fraudulently enrolling in U.S. schools for visa purposes, as well as recruiters profiting off of registering students in these fake programs.
On Jan. 30, however, the University of Farmington closed its doors after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested eight recruiters and 130 students who had enrolled in the school, The Detroit News reported.
As stated in federal indictments which became unsealed on Jan. 30, the University of Farmington represented a “pay to stay” scheme, which allows “individuals to stay in the United States as a result of foreign citizens falsely asserting that they were enrolled as full-time students in an approved educational program and that they were making normal progress toward completion of the course of study.”
In other words, students knowingly or unknowingly enrolled in the school for the purpose of obtaining legal immigration status as a student.
Despite claims that they didn’t know they were participating in a scam, the recruiters are now facing felony charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit, while many of the students face civil immigration charges and threats of deportation, according to federal prosecutors.
While stings of this nature which involve using a phony university to lure in undocumented immigrants are uncommon, according to experts, they are not unheard of. Just three years ago, Homeland Security agents created a similar institution, the fake University of Northern New Jersey, to arrest 21 people on charges of student and work visa fraud.
Infamously labeled the “Deporter in Chief,” the U.S. saw a large crackdown on immigration under President Barack Obama. Between 2009 and 2015, the Obama Administration deported more than 2.5 million people through immigration removal orders, more than any other presidential administration in U.S. history.
Because immigration enforcement takes place at the federal level and agencies like the Department of Homeland Security follow the directive of the presidential administration, Peter Henning, a former prosecutor and law professor at Wayne State University, said it is unsurprising that both the University of Farmington and the University of Northern New Jersey sting operations began during Obama’s tenure.
“Under the Obama Administration you had a real crackdown on immigration crimes, so I don’t think in that regard we’ve seen much of a change,” Henning told The College Post. “Some of the rhetoric has changed with the Trump Administration, but targeting people who are here that have stayed beyond their visa, that’s nothing new.”
Do schemes like this qualify as entrapment?
Since details have emerged about the University of Farmington in federal indictments, many have questioned whether federal agents entrapped the students and recruiters.
In the realm of criminal law, entrapment is when someone “is induced or persuaded by law enforcement officers or their agents to commit a crime that [they] had no previous intent to commit… However, there is no entrapment where a person is ready and willing to break the law and the government agents merely provide what appears to be a favorable opportunity for the person to commit the crime.”
Speaking after the Feb. 4 arraignment of Phanideep Karnati, one of the eight foreign national recruiters charged in the University of Farmington case, Karnati’s attorney John Brusstar said he thought the operation fit the definition of entrapment.
“It is unfair for the government to set up something like this to entrap people,” Brusstar said. “[Karnati and his family] love this country, but are saddened by what happened.”
However, others well-versed in criminal law and prosecution have begged to differ.
“I think we’ll see it play out as the case works its way through the system, but if you come up with a very clever idea that entices someone to use it, that’s not an improper sting,” Henning said.
“There would have to be something more where the government plants the idea of engaging in criminal conduct, or puts so much pressure on the person, basically begging them to do it, that that could then be viewed as improper government conduct,” he added.
Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed that classifying the University of Farmington case as a “sting” is more appropriate than calling it entrapment.
Particularly because one of the requirements for entrapment to be valid is that those claiming they were entrapped were otherwise law abiding, undocumented immigrants trying to remain in the U.S. illegally and recruiters committing visa fraud are unlikely to fit into this category.
“For the most part with immigration, the idea would be that you’re trying to find people who are in violation [of their legal status] and getting them to reveal themselves so you can take action against them,” Kenney told The College Post. “So sting would be the more accurate reference.”
How international students can legally study in the U.S.
Despite the fact that the University of Farmington and the University of Northern New Jersey were both fabricated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there are many legitimate and legal practical training programs operated by colleges across the country.
CPT programs allow foreign students to work in order to receive training that directly relates to their major area of study and that is an integral part of the school’s established curriculum. However, there are a few important eligibility stipulations that students should take note of.
In accordance with DHS guidelines, an F-1 student enrolled at an Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certified school may be eligible for CPT if they have been lawfully enrolled on a full-time basis for at least one full academic year, are not studying English as a second language, and if they have secured a training position.
According to Rahul Reddy, an immigration attorney in Houston, the first of these eligibility requirements is perhaps the most important, particularly as unlawful “Day 1 CPT programs” begin appearing and being advertised more frequently as an option for international students.
“If a university offers Day 1 CPT, that is, if they are giving students a work permit on the day the join the university, that’s a big sign that that university may not be following regulations,” Reddy told The College Post.
Following the ICE raid and sting operation at the University of Farmington, any international students currently enrolled in a Day 1 CPT program are being advised to contact an immigration attorney, something that is reinforced on Reddy’s law practice website.
Aside from whether the University of Farmington qualifies as entrapment, Kenney said that “setting up fake universities is a really bad idea” given the potential for negative connotations and skepticism to become associated with perfectly legal CPT programs.
“You’ve got a whole array of issues aside from whether it’s entrapment or not that are problematic,” Kenney said. “[Stings] often destroy the ability of either the media, or the medical community, or whoever it is that you’re pretending to be, in this case educators, to do their jobs and perform their functions. That is always a bad thing.”
Level of Due Diligence International Students Should Exercise
As for-profit educational scams become more and more common, Kenney said both domestic and international students should exercise caution before formally enrolling in CPT programs.
“There’s an awful lot of for-profit hustles out there to entice students into giving up their money for a product that they’re not really getting,” Kenney said. “It’s quite likely that the international students are easier to scam because they’re not as familiar with the way that our educational system works… but I don’t think that by any means it’s exclusively them that should be worried about this.”
With this in mind, Reddy said there are various red flags students should be wary of to determine if the university they are enrolling in may be “fake” or in violation of F-1 student requirements.
In addition to steering clear of schools and programs that claim to offer “Day 1 CPT,” Reddy said schools that don’t require students to physically attend classes on a weekly basis, that don’t ask for any bachelor’s or master’s degree transcripts during the admissions process, and whose websites feature lots of grammatical errors should also be avoided.
Despite the convenience and potential enticement of using a middleman to enroll in a CPT program, Henning said the risks that international students expose themselves to in the process may not be worth the rewards.
“I think the due diligence requirement is that the student has to do his or her homework and not just put themselves in the hands of someone else,” Henning said. “Assuming that they truly do want to study, there aren’t any shortcuts here and unfortunately, the University of Farmington was a shortcut.”