More than 40 organizations call for justice over sham university set up by ICE

Ritu Jha-

More than 40 organizations representing hundreds of students that were allegedly trapped by a fake university set up by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Farmington, Michigan have initiated a class action suit against the US government department seeking damages for financial loss, humiliation and academic years lost. All the students, bar one, were of Indian descent.

On August 9, these 40-plus organizations sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) demanding an investigation into DHS’ operations related to the University of Farmington and redress for the students who were targeted. In conjunction with the letter, attorneys representing the students also filed a civil rights complaint with the agency.

“I want justice,” said Ajit (name changed on request), a student from Vijayawada in southern India, one of the many South Asians who were cheated by the fake university set up by federal agents to allegedly student visa fraud. “I did not commit any mistake. I want my money and career back.” Ajit, along with scores of other students from India, is part of the class action lawsuit.

In 2014, ICE agents planned what they called ‘Operation Paper Chase’ and established the University of Farmington in Michigan with permission or in consultation with the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan.

According to the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), a nonprofit that is acting on behalf of the 40-plus civil rights organizations to fight on behalf of the students, “The University of Farmington, set up by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and overseen by DHS to supposedly expose student visa fraud, led to the entrapment of around 600 students who were eventually detained without due process, and whose tuition and fees totalling over six million dollars were seized by DHS. All of the students who were targeted by ICE were of Indian descent, aside from one student from Palestine.”

The same day, August 9, a complaint was filed against ICE for violating constitutional and procedural rights of Teja Ravi (the main plaintiff), and other similarly situated students enrolled at the University of Farmington. An earlier complaint filed against ICE by Teja failed to convince the Judge but this time the attorney has the support of over 40 organizations in support of students.

Anna Nathanson, Associate Attorney, Norris Law Group, Washington, DC told indica, “I am motivated to fight for justice by the conversations I have had with the Farmington students. I’ve spoken to people that were caged because of this government scheme, people who considered suicide because of it, and people whose families are still struggling with debt due to the stolen tuition fees. The damage runs deep and they deserve justice.”

In February and March this year, Norris Law sent a letter to Associate Attorney General of United States Vanita Gupta urging her office to support the students and take action. Norris Law said neither of the letters received a response until April this year when “Ms. Gupta refused to return the tuition funds of the Farmington students or to reinstate their immigration benefits, or even to meet with us to discuss the Farmington issue.”

Nathanson said she was not pleased. “We ask Ms. Gupta to take responsibility for correcting this injustice against the Indian student community and to use her power to return their tuition funds and reinstate their immigration benefits,” she said in a statement.

“International students who were mostly from humble backgrounds and vulnerable because of the broken immigration system, were preyed upon by the government,” said a former Farmington student who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. “We students are only asking for justice,” said Kumar, another survivor of the Farmington scheme.

“Regardless of presidential administrations, the exploitation and criminalization of immigrants continues,” said Lakshmi Sridaran, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) a South Asian-focused nonprofit. “ICE set up this fake university to bait and trap immigrant students under the Obama Administration. They were exposed under the Trump Administration and should finally be held accountable now by the Biden Administration. These students were specifically targeted for their national origin, a trademark of DHS. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta has the power to immediately restore the over $6 million in tuition money stolen from these students. By doing so, she could begin to improve the current administration’s dismal track record on immigration.”

This was not the first instance for the ICE to allegedly defraud students. “In 2013, ICE similarly created a fake university in New Jersey, ensnaring more than a thousand students in their fraudulent scheme,” according to NIPNLG. “Following a multi-year class-action lawsuit, a legal settlement was reached in January 2022. Under the proposed deal, the government will pay $450,000 in legal fees and plaintiffs who saw their visas overturned after the sham was revealed may have their removal proceedings cancelled by DHS and be allowed to apply for new visas or seek reinstatement to attend another school.”

Vijayawada student Ajit described to indica the trauma he went through after returning to India. His father had taken a $50,000 loan and he had to pay it back. He was bullied by relatives and friends. He isolated himself. “I literary failed my parents,” he said. “My parents had to sell their land. I never thought we will sell that land. So many things happened to my family because of me, unfortunately.”

Ajit was one of the first to learn the university was fake when a federal agent knocked on his door on the morning of January 8, 2019. He said he was given no choice. “He told me to leave the country within 48 hours and that my SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) accreditation is terminated. “I was lucky to be not jailed. Many students were detained for several months.”

He spoke to attorney who advised him to speak to the university. Ajit said he was so anxious that he decided to go to Farmington City in Michigan and visit the university in person. All he found there was a small office suite in a commercial area with four or five people. There was no university.

“When I reached, the officers were amazed to see me. They never expected anyone, I think. There was one Ali Milani, who was designated Director of Admission (DOA). He told me to not contact any attorney. I did not understand. My life became a blur.” Ajit said his SEVIS was active until January 30, 2019.

The letter written by the 40-plus civil rights organizations on behalf of the students said, “DHS marketed the University of Farmington to prospective students as one that “provide[d] students from throughout the world a unique educational experience” and claimed accreditation by the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and the Accrediting
Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. In addition, the University established a physical address, maintained a professional website, issued offers of acceptance, accepted tuition payments, and mailed students I-20 Certificates of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status.”

It added, “In 2019, immediately following the public announcement that the University was a sting operation deliberately set up by DHS, ICE began terminating students’ immigration status, claiming that any student who enrolled in the University had knowingly participated in visa fraud. All of the students who were targeted by ICE were of Indian descent, aside from one student from Palestine. We find this action by ICE to be targeting students for their national origin. The students were detained, and many were placed in removal proceedings in Immigration Court or left the country in fear. One of the students was awakened in the middle of the night by ICE agents and taken into custody for 45 days without any advance notice.”

Ajit told indica, “We came to the US legally and got into this mess they (the DHS) created. How will I know whether the university is illegal and run by ICE. How can I do a background check for Farmington University. I was just an immigrant.” Ajit left the country on February 4, 2019, but until then several of his fellow students were arrested and put behind bars.

“There were no in-person classes. I was working; I thought I don’t have to go to the class because it was a Master’s degree. I was on curricular practical training (CPT) and there were no phones, only emails,” Ajit said.

Raja, another University of Farmington student victim, came to the US in August 2015, and earned a master’s degree in computer science from Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU) in Fremont, California. Like AJit, Raja too was on Optional Practical Training (OPT).

“We were supposed to get an extension when NPU lost accreditation and so we did not get two years OPT and to maintain the status we students were looking for an H1B visa. I filed in 2017 but was not approved.”

Raja, therefore, decided to study for a second master’s degree, and while searching for an appropriate school, he came across the University of Farmington. When he called the administration office, “they told me they would provide OPT and we can study and work legally eight hours per day,” Raja told indica.

He said the administrators told him there will be only online classes. “I was interested,” he said. “I got admission in 2017 and I paid $2500 as fees for the first semester. I asked a few of times about online classes and also mailed them, but they just asked to pay a fee every semester.”

It was only after he paid for three semesters that he realised he was cheated. On learning the truth about the ICE fake university project, Raja said he immediately called the immigration officer to check the visa status. “They confirmed it’s terminated and that I would have to leave the country.”

Raja was shocked. He underwent a bout of severe depression. His attorneys advised him that there is no legal recourse. “I had a car and a job, earning $5000 each month.” Raja said his departure was so quick that he could not even sell the Toyota Camry he owned.

He said, “Most Indians prefer to get into the US legally. So did I. My parents and I underwent tremendous anxiety and depression. I lost my money and three and a half years.” In all, Raja, whose father is small farmer, had spent $32,000 in just tuition fees. Raja said that he only wants his $32,000 and his Toyota Camry back from the lawsuit.

Both Ajit and Raja told indica over the phone that many students are still afraid of coming out because of the stigma and the trauma they have undergone.

In their letter, the plaintiffs wrote, “As organizations that work with South Asian communities and as allies, we condemn the actions of DHS to entrap students, which is one of many ways that DHS continues to criminalize immigrants. DHS should not be utilizing taxpayer funds to conduct operations and activities that target and entrap people. We support efforts that call for investigations into DHS’ operations with respect to the University of Farmington, and that seek redress for the affected students. For these reasons and to rectify this great injustice, we urge you to sign off on a settlement agreement that restores the students’ tuition money and immigration benefits 2 and ensures that these fraudulent and discriminatory operations by ICE do not continue in the future.”