Detroit, MI – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have arrested 146 students and eight recruiters in a massive sting operation involving an imaginary university that was helping students remain in the United States illegally.
Federal prosecutors said the eight recruiters have been charged with visa fraud conspiracy and harboring aliens for profit, the Detroit News reported.
Those recruiters helped at least 600 foreign nationals stay and work in the United States by enrolling them in what they knew was a fake university.
Public records showed that federal immigration enforcement officials followed the exact same playbook that they used in New Jersey in 2016 when they arrested 21 students enrolled in the imaginary University of Northern New Jersey, the Detroit News reported.
The eight recruiters "collectively received $250,000 in cash and kickbacks to find students to attend the university."
Then they helped those students obtain fake documents from the university that would make it easier for them to get student visas, such as student records and transcripts, according to the Detroit News.
The problem was that none of the students were actually attending or participating online in any classes because, beyond its targeted recruiting, the University of Farmington did not exist.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand ordered the recruiters held without bond, pending a hearing, the Detroit News reported.
"These suspects aided hundreds of foreign nationals to remain in the United States illegally by helping to portray them as students, which they most certainly were not," Special Agent Steve Francis, a special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations office in Detroit, told the Detroit News.
Federal agents said that all the students participating in University of Farmington knew it was a sham and will face deportation from the United States.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents created an elaborate front for the imaginary school, registering a .edu website with lots of pictures of happy students attending classes, and a promise of a curriculum that was flexible for work schedules, the Detroit News reported.
That website has since been shut down and has a notice on it that it was closed by immigration.
University of Farmington, which was launched in 2015 under the Obama administration, also had active social media profiles and was accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, the same legitimate organization that worked with DHS on the New Jersey sting in 2016, the Detroit News reported.
DHS also listed University of Farmington as an accepted institution for visas on its own website to complete the illusion.
"The University was being used by foreign citizens as a 'pay to stay' scheme which allowed these 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," the indictment said, according to Business Insider.
"It's creative, and it's not entrapment," former federal prosecutor Peter Henning told the Detroit News. "The government can put out the bait, but it's up to the defendants to fall for it."
Critics of the sting operation argued that it targeted people who were just trying to better their lives through education, the Detroit Free Press reported.
All 146 students who were arrested were from India, except 29-year-old Palestinian Najlaa Karim Musarsa.
Musarsa was released and has already returned to the West Bank, the Detroit Free Press reported.