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Undercover recordings reveal ICE tactics in fake university sting

Posted at 10:27 AM, Jan 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-08 12:27:42-05

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — Newly revealed audio recordings call in to question what potential students knew about a fake university set up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to catch undocumented immigrants in a pay-to-stay scheme.

The Homeland Security operation led to the arrest of roughly 250 foreign students. The department alleged that the students deliberately joined the university with the intent of extending their student visas, knowing that there were no actual classes to attend at the university.

But according to lawyers, recordings made in 2018 show that when some students called to ask about classes, they were told that classes were full, and there were no courses available online either.

Some of the students seemed confused, and attorneys argue that shows the students had no idea the university was fake and set up solely to catch people abusing student visas.

"I have some inquiries about my admission. Is there any chance to get me knowledge, know more about my classes could you?" one student from India said in an exchange with undercover agents.

When the agent asked that student if he was aware he was under a "special arrangement," the student said he "didn't know that."

In another call, when an agent explained to a student that he wouldn't be taking classes, a student offered a confused response.

"They didn't tell me about all of this because I am supposed to enroll in some (inaudible) class in order to maintain my status. I was not told about this," the student said.

"Everybody we were involved with believed there was going to be online courses. My client was shocked; the students were shocked," defense attorney Anjali Prasad said.

Prasad, a former federal prosecutor, is the attorney for Phanideep Karnati, who pleaded guilty to recruiting students to the fake university. She says it wasn't until after Karnati's arrest that he realized that "Farmington University" was fake, and that it is illegal to maintain a student visa without taking some in-person college courses.

Prasad believes the reaction of the students on the recordings call into question if they truly knew what they were signing up for a "pay to stay" scheme.

ICE disputes that characterization and points to an undercover video of officers, posing as university representatives, talking to other "students."

In that recording, an agent tells the prospective student that they will not be actually attending classes but would still send documents saying the student was taking a class. When the undercover agent asks the student if they know such an arrangement is illegal, the student says they know and would still like to go through with the arrangement.

"These individuals were not new to the U.S. student visa system; they were familiar with its requirements and their obligations. They secured visas to enroll in another U.S. school, and were already in the United States when they transferred to Farmington," ICE's acting deputy director Derek Benner said in a statement. "In addition, prior to enrolling at Farmington, each prospective enrollee was informed that there were no classes, curriculum or teachers at Farmington. Despite this, individuals enrolled because they saw an opportunity to avoid any academic requirements and, instead, work full-time, which was a violation of their nonimmigrant status.

Prasad characterizes the whole operation that corralled her client as baiting.

"I see that its accredited, I see all the trappings of a real college," she said. "Then I'm going to think it's a real college, I'm not really going to scratch the surface and think 'huh, maybe it's a phony college setup by the government to catch me'."

ICE says 250 students enrolled were arrested, and the majority left the country willingly or self-deported.

As for Prasad's client, he is the last of eight recruiters to be sentenced. His sentencing is scheduled for next Friday, Jan. 17.

Read Benner's statement in full below.

Over the past few weeks, the University of Farmington (Farmington), an undercover investigation run by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), has been the focus of several media reports. These reports mischaracterized the purpose and rationale for the investigation, and I want to set the record straight. HSI is responsible for enforcing more than 400 federal statutes, including laws related to the student visa system. An estimated 1.2 million nonimmigrant students studied at more than 8,200 U.S. schools during 2018, promoting cultural exchange, providing billions of dollars to the U.S. economy, and contributing to research and development. Criminals and some students, however, exploit the student visa system, allowing foreign nationals to remain in the United States in violation of their nonimmigrant status.

When a nonimmigrant student decides to enroll in a program of study in the United States, the student must abide by U.S. laws and regulations to maintain their nonimmigrant status. Above all, their primary purpose while in the United States must be to study. Every nonimmigrant student is required to "make normal progress toward completing a course of study" as a condition of maintaining their status. If they don't meet that standard, they are subject to arrest and removal from the country. The individuals who enrolled at Farmington, knowingly and willfully violated their nonimmigrant visa status and consequently were subject to removal from the United States.

These individuals were not new to the U.S. student visa system; they were familiar with its requirements and their obligations. They secured visas to enroll in another U.S. school, and were already in the United States when they transferred to Farmington. In addition, prior to enrolling at Farmington, each prospective enrollee was informed that there were no classes, curriculum or teachers at Farmington. Despite this, individuals enrolled because they saw an opportunity to avoid any academic requirements and, instead, work full-time, which was a violation of their nonimmigrant status. Evidence, including video footage, audio recordings, and correspondence collected during the investigation supports that each prospective enrollee knowingly and willfully violated their nonimmigrant status.

Farmington is a clear example of a pay-to-stay scheme, which is against the law and, not only creates a dangerous lack of accountability, but also diminishes the quality and integrity of the U.S. student visa system. Undercover investigations like this one provide law enforcement an inside look into how these networks operate, which was the primary purpose in establishing Farmington. The investigation provided HSI with a better understanding of how recruiters and others abuse the nonimmigrant student visa system. This, in turn, informs and improves DHS' efforts to uncover fraud at schools, provides insight into networks within the United States that facilitate such abuse, and serves as a deterrent to potential violators both in the short- and long-term.

As sworn civil servants, HSI special agents will continue to uphold the Constitution and protect the country's borders and immigration laws. The rules and regulations that govern the student visa system help protect the country from individuals who seek to abuse the system or remain illegally in the United States. HSI is responsible for investigating these kinds of violations, which is precisely what it did by establishing Farmington to investigate a complex fraud scheme used across the country to undermine U.S. laws and individuals' safety.

This story was originally published by Brian Abel on WXYZ in Detroit.