The Department of Homeland Security said the undercover sting operation at the University of Farmington was to catch illegal immigrants, but others believe the intent was to spread fear among foreign students.
(TNS) — In the summer of 2017, a foreign student in Michigan received an email from an official at the University of Farmington.
"It was a pleasure speaking with you," Ali Milani wrote to the student from India. "Thank you for your recent interest in The University of Farmington, a nationally accredited business and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) institution. Here at the University of Farmington we have created an innovative learning environment that combines traditional instruction with fulltime professional experiences. We offer flexible class schedules and a focus on students who do not want to interrupt their careers."
At the bottom of the email, it described the university as: "A nationally accredited institution authorized to enroll international students by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."
The email and others like it were obtained by the Free Press, revealing how the university portrayed itself to potential foreign students. The email exchanges with Ali Milani — who is described in a LinkedIn profile as the president of the University of Farmington — show how the school in Farmington Hills may have lured students to enroll in a fake university set up by The Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
A federal indictment unsealed Jan. 30 said that the university was produced by federal agents with an investigative division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of DHS. Federal agents posed as university officials such as "Ali Milani" to trick the students, say attorneys.
Federal prosecutors allege that more than 600 students enrolled at the university knew it was improper, but the emails and attorneys tell a different story.
In addition to the emails, federal undercover agents took other steps to manipulate the foreign students, according to public records and attorneys:
Undercover investigators with the Department of Homeland Security registered the University of Farmington with the state of Michigan as a university using a fake name.
At the request of DHS, a national accreditation agency listed the University of Farmington as being accredited in order to help deceive prospective students.
The university was also placed by federal investigators on the website of ICE as an university approved by them under a government program for foreign students known as SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Program).
"It seems quite clear the scheme was set up by the government not to go after legitimate offenders, but to create fear in our immigration system," said Amer Zahr, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Detroit-Mercy and a spokesman for one of the 146 students who were detained by ICE. "They're going after students who are trying to better their lives, because America has the best education.This is who they're choosing to go after? It's really disturbing."
Out of the 600+ students who were enrolled, 146 have been arrested and detained by ICE on civil immigration charges. All are from India except for Najlaa Karim Musarsa, 29, of Dearborn Heights, who is Palestinian. She was released last week and went back to the West Bank.
In addition, prosecutors have charged eight people for being recruiters of the students, most of whom studied in engineering and technology fields. Five of them were arraigned in U.S. district court in Detroit last week and pled not guilty.
"It really shows a contempt for immigrants, Zahr said of the detaining of Musarsa and other students.
"She's not a danger to society. She's not trying to defraud. To treat her and others as hardcore criminals" is concerning, Zahr said. "They want to create fear, so non-white people, brown people don't think of coming to America anymore."
There are reports in Indian-American and Indian media outlets such as The American Bazaar saying that some of the students were being held in poor conditions and not getting vegetarian food in accordance with their religious and cultural beliefs. Some students were already removed, and are now stuck in India with debt, said a Times of India report. The report said some come from poor farming backgrounds and had to take out loans to support their studies in the U.S.The university charged $11,000 a year for graduate students.
On Thursday, four U.S. House Reps, including U.S. House Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) released a letter they sent to DHS and ICE, expressing "concerns surrounding the recent undercover operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)." The Indian government has also expressed its concern in a letter from its Ministry of External Affairs.
The letter from the Congressmen said that Indian-Americans "have expressed concerns regarding the treatment of these detained foreign nationals. We urge DHS and ICE to ensure the detained students are treated properly and afforded all rights provided to them under the law, including access to an attorney and release on bond, if they are eligible."
In a statement, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said: "ICE remains committed to ensuring its facilities adhere to ICE’s detention standards which provide several levels of oversight in order to ensure that residents in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments."
Many of the students who were enrolled at the University of Farmington had previously received masters degrees from a different university, like the student that Milani had written to. The name of the student in the email is not being identified at the request of an attorney.
They were generally admitted to the U.S. on non-immigrant F-1 student visas and were allowed to work while enrolled at a university on programs known as OPT (Optional Practical Training) or CPT (Curricular Practical Training), said attorneys in contact with the students. Some were trying to get H1-B visas to stay for a longer time in America, but there is a cap on those, and so they sought other ways to remain working in the U.S.
After their masters degree programs ended, the students would be ineligible to remain working in the U.S. and so some sought to get a second masters degree at the University of Farmington. In other cases, their previous universities had problems with accreditation, which made them ineligible to work, and so they tried to transfer, said Atlanta-based immigration attorney Ravi Mannam.
In the June 2017 email sent by Milani, the president of the fake university, Milani wrote to the Indian student: "In many instances, your prior Masters Degree’s (MA) credits, combined with CPT, can be applied to a second MA in lieu of a traditional course load."
Milani wrote to the student about its tuition and accreditation: "The University of Farmington operates on a quarterly academic calendar, each term is generally ten weeks, excluding exams, and the admissions process is on a rolling basis. Terms start every three months, beginning in September, December, March, and June. Sessions begin every month. Graduate programs tuition is $2500 per quarter. Depending on fees, average cost is $1,000 per month."
"We are accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (www.accsc.org) and licensed by the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs as a private postsecondary college," he wrote.
The executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), Michale McComis, told the Free Press that his group worked with federal agents on the sting operation.
"Upon request by the US Department of Homeland Security ACCSC assisted in the operation by listing the school as being accredited by ACCSC," McComis said.
The same group had accredited a fake University of Northern New Jersey at the request of DHS. In that case, though, ICE didn't make mass arrests of students like they have of the Farmington students.
Records filed with the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) show that the University of Farmington was incorporated in January 2016. Prosecutors have said their undercover operation started in 2015.
Ali Milani is listed in the state records as the university's resident agent. A spokesman for LARA, Jason Moon, refused to comment on the fake university and whether the state had cooperated with federal investigators on their sting investigation.
Many of the students were trying to work while enrolled in a university, which is an accepted practice approved by the U.S. government.
In the June 2017 email to the student, Milani sent the student a 2-page application form that asks applicants to send a $100 application fee.
"If you are interested in having your tomorrow start today, please complete the attached application and submit a copy of your passport and current visa," Milani wrote.
His email ended with: "Good luck in all your endeavors."
The student filled out the application and emailed Milani back in a couple of hours. The next day, June 29, Milani said the student was admitted, writing that he was attaching the "admission letter along with the international student checklist and SEVIS transfer form."
SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Program that is run by ICE, which oversees the program for students on F-1 visas, like the ones at the University of Farmington.
The next week, the student asked to defer his admission until December. In October, the student then asked Milani to transfer his SEVIS "today" because his OPT expires.
"I have been trying to reach out to you since morning, but couldn't get hold of it. Please let me know ASAP, its URGENT," the student wrote.
After enrolling at the university, some of the students discovered there were no classes, said attorneys. But the university kept on telling the students that classes would soon be held.
"I was told by the students, that the university reassured them that classes would be held and everything would be fine and that they are following the immigration laws," said Prashanthi Reddy, an attorney in New York City. "The students payed them the tuition fees and were trapped once they realized that classes were not being held, as some didn't have the money to transfer and pay tuition at another university."
Reddy said "some did transfer out, some said they called and emailed the university and asked for SEVIS to be transferred but did not get a response, some others said they were reassured by the fact that the University was accredited and listed on the ICE website."
Adding to the confusion was a website that led viewers to think it was a legitimate place, with photos of students in classrooms and claims that students could work while enrolled.
"The University of Farmington is a nationally accredited business and STEM institution located in Metro Detroit," read the university website created by DHS that was taken down the day after the indictments were unsealed. "Our innovative curriculum combines traditional instruction and distance learning with fulltime professional experiences. We offer flexible class schedules and a focus on students who do not want to interrupt their careers."
The university even had a fake backstory, saying that it "traces its lineage back to the early 1950s, when returning soldiers from the Second World War were seeking a quality and marketable education. At the time, Detroit was the center of innovation and manufacturing. ... Please explore our academic offerings to see if University of Farmington is the right place to achieve your success."
"It was a very well put together website," said Russell Abrutyn, an immigration attorney in Berkley who is contact with some of the students. "It looked like a real school."
"I think a lot of these students ... were essentially taken advantage of or taken in by what appeared to be a legitimate school."
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