Attorneys of international students, mostly from India, who lost a case against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, describe the sting operation in which their clients were trapped as a case of “horrific abuse.”
The lawsuit filed by Teja Ravi, one of the international students of the University of Farmington and on behalf of other students was dismissed late last month.
Anna Nathanson, associate attorney, Norris Law Group, Washington, DC, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, told indica, “Mr. Ravi’s lawsuit is about a horrific abuse of 600 Indian students.”
“The trial court dismissed the case in an opinion that was released publicly last Friday, but we are going to appeal as the trial court erred and there must be justice for these students,” Nathanson said. “The trial judge’s ruling dangerously extended the power of federal law enforcement, saying that law enforcement can breach any contract if they say it is part of an undercover law enforcement action.”
It was in 2014 that ICE started “Operation Paper Chase” and established the University of Farmington in Michigan with the permission or in consultation with the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan.
The sting was an undercover operation designed to target individuals that ICE says fraudulently used their student visa status to work in the United States without attending classes or maintaining a full course of study. All they did was pay tuition to a collaborating educational institution in exchange for a Form I-20 authorizing Curricular Practical Training (permission to work in limited situations.), the officials said.
But the plaintiff’s attorneys say these students were not illegal in the US, had maintained their legal status, and so were not violating the law..
According to the court, “This type of student visa fraud is known as a “pay-to-stay” scheme.” Operation Paper Chase was launched not just to target students but also their recruiters who assisted them in the “pay-to-stay” scheme.
Ravi, a student from India, was on an F-1 visa in 2018 and is already enrolled at Northwestern Polytechnic University in California. In February 2018 he enrolled in the University of Farmington’s Information Technology program. From the time of his enrollment through January 2019, he paid $12,500 in tuition.
According to the court document, Ravi was not aware when he enrolled in 2018 that the University of Farmington was a fictitious school set up to expose student visa fraud. Instead, the university was listed as “a State of Michigan-licensed and nationally accredited private university” by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations. The matter was overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
More than 161 students were arrested and 600 students and recruiters faced prosecution on criminal and administrative immigration charges. It resulted in fear and chaos among students, many of whom opted for voluntary deportation to their homeland.
Ravi was one of the 600. But a year later, on September 21, 2020, he filed his initial complaint in this court individually and on behalf of similarly situated Farmington students, asking the US government to give back his tuition payments, He alleged that the government breached a contract with him when it did not provide him legitimate educational services.
On March 25, the court dismissed the case saying, “The alleged educational services contract formed between HSI agents and Mr. Ravi arose out of Operation Paper Chase, an undercover law enforcement operation. The sovereign capacity doctrine bars contract actions that arise out of such lawful “criminal … enforcement actions … that could only be undertaken by the sovereign.”
“But Mr. Ravi argues that the sovereign capacity bar does not apply to this lawsuit for three reasons. First, Mr. Ravi argues that undercover agents were “stepp[ing] off [the government’s] throne to engage in the sale of educational services” during Operation Paper Chase.
Ravi’s attorneys say that the operation’s certification and reauthorization documents demonstrate that the government engaged in “commercial” activities, such as “creat[ing] a website and market[ing] educational services,” “accept[ing] and enroll[ing] … international students into a university,” and “leasing a building,” which he contends support his argument that the alleged educational services contract was “private” in nature.
In 2019, Vice President Kamala Harris, then a senator, offered support to the students and tweeted that the scheme behind the fraudulent school was not “just cruel, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
ABC.com has reported that “despite Harris now being vice president, there has been no change between the Biden and Trump administration’s positions in this case.” However, the plaintiff’s attorneys told indica they are not giving hope and aim to reach out to higher civil rights authorities in the Biden administration and the powerful South Asian lobby.
A similar case dealt with the University of Northern New Jersey, again a fake university, set up by the US government in 2013 to find evidence of an F-1 visa scam, had 1,076 international students.
ICE arrested several student visa recruiters, but reached a settlement in January 2022, giving some hope for students affected in the Farmington case as well.