ICE Acting Deputy Director sets the record straight on fraud investigations involving undercover schools

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ICE Acting Deputy Director sets the record straight on fraud investigations involving undercover schools

Acting Deputy Director Derek Benner addresses the public misconceptions about ICE Homeland Security Investigations’ use of undercover schools —specifically the University of Farmington—to identify and disrupt attempts by foreign students and recruiters to exploit the nonimmigrant student visa system to remain in the country through fraud.

Dear Editor:

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.



Derek Benner, Acting Deputy Director, U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement


ICE arrests 90 more students at fake university in Michigan

By Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press

ICE has arrested about 250 students who were enrolled at a fake university in Farmington Hills set up by ICE to lure in students. Tanya Wildt, Detroit Free Press

About 90 additional foreign students of a fake university in metro Detroit created by the Department of Homeland Security have been arrested in recent months.

A total of about 250 students have now been arrested since January on immigration violations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of a sting operation by federal agents who enticed foreign-born students, mostly from India, to attend the school that marketed itself as offering graduate programs in technology and computer studies, according to ICE officials.

Many of those arrested have been deported to India while others are contesting their removals. One has been allowed to stay after being granted lawful permanent resident status by an immigration judge.

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This is the building at 30500 Northwestern Hwy. in Farmington Hills south of 13 Mile Rd. that was used as the fake University of Farmington campus created by the Department of Homeland Security as part of a sting operation targeting foreign students, seen on Thursday, February 7, 2019, in Farmington Hills. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

The students had arrived legally in the U.S. on student visas, but since the University of Farmington was later revealed to be a creation of federal agents, they lost their immigration status after it was shut down in January. The school was located on Northwestern Highway near 13 Mile Road in Farmington Hills and staffed withundercover agents posing as university officials.

Out of the approximately 250 students arrested on administrative charges, "nearly 80% were granted voluntary departure and departed the United States," the Detroit office of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) told the Free Press in a statement Tuesday.

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Out of the remaining 20%, about half of them have received a final order of removal; some of them were ordered removed by an immigration judge, and others "were given an expedited removal by U.S. Customs and Border Protection," said HSI Detroit.

The remaining 10% "have either filed for some sort of relief or are contesting their removals with Executive Office for Immigration Review," said HSI Detroit.

ICE said in March that 161 students had been arrested, which has now increased to about 250.

Meanwhile, seven of the eight recruiters who were criminally charged for trying to recruit students have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced in Detroit, including Prem Rampeesa, 27, last week. The remaining one is to be sentenced in January.

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Attorneys for the students arrested said they were unfairly trapped by the U.S. government since the Department of Homeland Security had said on its website that the university was legitimate. An accreditation agency that was working with the U.S. on its sting operation also listed the university as legitimate. 

More: Emails show how fake university in metro Detroit lured students

More: ICE arrests more students at fake university, others being removed from US

More: Attorney: Fake Farmington university sting by ICE was entrapment

There were more than 600 students enrolled at the university, which was created a few years ago by federal law enforcement officials with ICE. Records filed with the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) show that the University of Farmington was incorporated in January 2016.

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Many of the students had enrolled with the university through a program known as Curricular Practical Training (CPT), which allows students to work in the U.S through a F-1 visa program for foreign students. Some had transferred to the University of Farmington from other schools that had lost accreditation, which means they would no longer be in immigration status and allowed to remain in the U.S. 

Emails obtained by the Free Press earlier this year showed how the fake university attracted students to the university, which cost about $12,000 on average in tuition and fees per year. 

The U.S. "trapped the vulnerable people who just wanted to maintain (legal immigration) status," Rahul Reddy, a Texas attorney who represented or advised some of the students arrested, told the Free Press this week. "They preyed upon on them."

The fake university is believed to have collected millions of dollars from the unsuspecting students. An email from the university's president, named Ali Milani, told students that graduate programs' tuition is $2,500 per quarter and the average cost is $1,000 per month.

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"They made a lot of money," Reddy said of the U.S. government.

No one has filed a lawsuit or claim against the U.S. government for collecting the money or for allegedly entrapping the students. 

Attorneys for ICE and the Department of Justice maintain that the students should have known it was not a legitimate university because it did not have classes in a physical location. Some CPT programs have classes combined with work programs at companies. 

"Their true intent could not be clearer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Helms wrote in a sentencing memo this month for Rampeesa, one of the eight recruiters, of the hundreds of students enrolled. "While 'enrolled' at the University, one hundred percent of the foreign citizen students never spent a single second in a classroom. If it were truly about obtaining an education, the University would not have been able to attract anyone, because it had no teachers, classes, or educational services."

In the memo, federal prosecutor Baker said the case raises questions about the U.S. "foreign-student visa program."


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Baker wrote that "immigration and visa programs have been hot-button topics in the United States for years and national scrutiny has only been increasing. Fairly or unfairly, Rampeesa’s conduct casts a shadow on the foreign-student visa program in general, and it raises questions as to whether the potential for abuse threatens to outweigh the benefits."

Reddy said, though, that in some cases, students who transferred out from the University of Farmington after realizing they didn't have classes on-site, were still arrested.

Rampeesa was sentenced Nov, 19 to one year in prison by Judge Gershwin Drain of U.S. District Court in Detroit. With time already served of 295 days, he should be out in about two to three months, and will then be deported to India, said his attorney Wanda Cal. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbor aliens for profit.

Detroit ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said the other recruiters sentenced so far are Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Florida, 18 months; Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Virginia, 18 months; Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, California, 24 months; Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 15 months; Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta, Georgia, 12 months; Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas, Texas, 12 months.

Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, Kentucky, is to be sentenced in January.

In court, Rampeesa's attorney, Cal, said his client had no criminal record and came from a rural background in India.

He was trying to "help his family back home," Cal said before Judge Drain. "My client is very remorseful. He is really a good person caught up in a bad situation."

Rampeesa arrived in the U.S. legally a few years ago on a student visa and earned in 2016 a master's degree in computer science at Northwestern Polytechnic University. But the university later lost its accreditation, which put his immigration status in jeopardy. He had spent $40,000 in tuition and fees for his studies at the university.

"He was desperate to find a way to stay in the United States," Rampeesa's attorney, Cal, wrote in his sentencing memo. He wanted to get a Ph.D. in computer science, she said.

Rampeesa then met Sama, who recruited him to attend the University of Farmington and told him he could get tuition credits if he recruited other students, Cal said.

Sama and Rampeesa were working with people they thought were university officials, but were actually undercover agents for the Department of Homeland Security.

"My client has no other criminal history, not even a traffic ticket," Cal said in court last week.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Baker said in court that Rampeesa was "aware it was completely fake," that "it was just for maintaining status."

"He chose the University of Farmington for a reason," Baker said of Rampeesa.

In calling for a sentence of 24 to 30 months, Baker said: "It's important to send a message ... this type of crime will not be tolerated."

Accompanying Baker in the court last week was Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet, who helped prosecute the case.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken offline the website of the University of Farmington, which it had created for a sting operation. The website was taken down on Jan. 31, 2019 after a federal indictment was unsealed on Jan. 30. The website for the fake university now contains a logo for the investigative unit of ICE and reads: "The University of Farmington has been closed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement." (Photo: Dept. of Homeland Security)

Judge Drain sentenced him to 1 year, but he will be released in two to three months because of time served, and then deported.

Drain said of Rampeesa: "You don't have any criminal history. ... I don't think you're a danger to the public."

Rampeesa received a shorter sentence than Sama because he was not recruiting other students for cash, but for tuition credits provided by the university, Judge Drain said.

Rampeesa wrote a letter to the court pleading for leniency that was read before the judge. A Telugu-speaking translator was at his side in court, translating the courtroom proceedings. Most of the students were from Telugu-speaking regions of India in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

He said he was trying in the U.S. after his previous university's loss of accreditation made his master's degree "worthless."

"I am ashamed," Rampeesa wrote. "I made a very bad decision" to recruit students that "bought shame to my family name."

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