An office space at 30500 Northwestern Highway was the building used for the University of Farmington.

An office space at 30500 Northwestern Highway was the building used for the University of Farmington.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

Farmington Hills officials ‘had nothing to do’ with University of Farmington ICE investigation

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published January 6, 2020


FARMINGTON HILLS — After news broke nationally about the University of Farmington, a fake university set up by  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations to uncover illegal student F-1 visa fraud, residents have come to Farmington Hills city officials asking about their role in the operation.

People expressed concerns during public comment at the Dec. 2 and 9 City Council meetings.

“We knew nothing about this until we read about it in the paper like you did,” Mayor Vicki Barnett said to one individual.

“Nobody on this council, no part of this administration — police, fire, administrative staff or our city attorney — was informed this was going on. ICE acted alone on their own volition without letting us know they were partaking in this kind of program in our city,” Barnett said at the Dec. 9 meeting. “We have let it be known we don’t like our name used. … We don’t expect them to target our council and besmirch the name of the city of Farmington Hills while going about their business paid for by the federal government and not your local community. We had nothing to do with it.”

The investigation, which has been named “Operation Paper Chase,” began in 2015 with the fake university being incorporated in Michigan in January 2016, according to state records. Between February 2017 and January 2019, approximately 600 students were enrolled in the University of Farmington by a group of eight foreign citizens who are now being charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit.

Of the 600 enrolled students, approximately 250 of them have been arrested by ICE, with 80% of them voluntarily departing from the U.S. Of the other 20%, half have received a final removal order and half are contesting their removal or have filed for relief.

The fake university was operated by HSI special agents, who posed as administrative staff and the president of the school and told the eight recruiters — now defendants — that they would receive tuition credits at the university to recruit other individuals to the school.

The university, from the outside, appeared real. It appeared credible — it was authorized under the Department of Homeland Security’s website and given accreditation credentials. The university was said to be located at 30500 Northwestern Highway, which is a shared office building with suites than can be leased. It even had its own office space in suite 210 at the location.

However, no classes ever actually took place, and the university staffed zero real professors.

In total, $250,000 was collected in tuition fees from the enrolled students.

Several individuals, politicians and organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southeast Michigan — have criticized the investigation, calling it unethical, illegal or forcible entrapment.

“ICE should not be devoting time and resources to creating a fake university designed to lure people to this country just so they can turn around and arrest and deport them,” ACLU Legal Director Dan Korobkin said in a prepared statement. “It’s simply cruel for ICE to set up a trap for young people seeking educational opportunities in this country, not to mention unethical to take thousands of dollars from them in tuition and fees for a mirage of its own making.”

According to the University of Farmington website, undergraduate tuition and fees totaled $8,500 per year. Graduate tuition and fees totaled $11,000 per year.

However, officials with ICE have maintained that the operation was legal.

“Prior to enrolling at Farmington, each prospective enrollee was informed that there were no classes, curriculum or teachers,” ICE Acting Deputy Director Derek Benner said in a news release. “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.”

Attached to Benner’s news release was a video showing prospective enrollees seemingly understanding that their enrollment into the University of Farmington would not be considered legal. ICE, HSI and Eastern District of Michigan U.S. Attorney’s Office officials called the operation a “pay to stay” scheme.

Despite the whirlwind of national attention this story has received, Farmington Hills City Manager David Boyer doesn’t believe the city is in the hot seat.

“We didn’t know about it. If you don’t know about something, you can’t stop it,” he said. “They could’ve picked any community to do it in, and nobody would’ve known. They’re not going to come in and tell us they’re going to do an investigation in the city.”

He said the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over what address the federal government can and cannot use. “We can’t react to something we don’t know about.”