In a continuation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”)’s crackdown on fraud among the foreign student population, ICE established and ran “The University of Farmington” in the Detroit suburbs. As a result, the government indicted eight individuals for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. At least 600 foreign nationals obtained fraudulent student visas through ICE’s undercover operation, which had no instructors or classes that would enable students to pursue a course of study. Recruiters actively identified and helped enroll foreign nationals into the “university” and helped them obtain documentation that was required in order to seek work authorization from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”). Students who enrolled in the “university” also face potential civil and criminal penalties if the government can prove they knew they would not attend classes or pursue a course of study.
In addition, under USCIS’s August 9, 2018, policy memorandum, “Accrual of Unlawful Presence and F, J and M Nonimmigrants,” the government can determine that a student began accruing unlawful presence on the first date the student failed to pursue a course of study. Accruing unlawful presence of more than 180 days but less than a year, and then departing the United States, will subject the student to a three-year bar to reentering. Departing after accruing unlawful presence of a year or longer will trigger a ten-year bar.
This is not the first time that a fake university created by ICE has come to public attention. In 2016, 21 individuals were charged with crimes related to “The University of Northern New Jersey,” another school run by ICE, this one targeting fraudulent recruiters. In November 2018, a group of students who had been caught in the sting operation filed a class action against ICE, claiming they did not know the university was illegitimate.
Foreign nationals and their employers should anticipate that DHS will continue aggressively targeting individuals who seek to enroll in a program of study solely to obtain an immigration benefit. Even innocent lapses in judgment can have serious consequences. Foreign students should be careful to enroll only in established schools for purposes of completing a bona fide program of study.
Natalie Tynan is a former DHS lawyer who focuses on immigration compliance and related issues.