STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How exactly did federal authorities trick foreign students with a fake university? The details may decide what you think of the University of Farmington. The Department of Homeland Security created and advertised this bogus school in Michigan. When foreign students applied there to get U.S. visas, DHS then arrested students and has deported most of them. Is this legitimate or entrapment? Niraj Warikoo has been covering the story for the Detroit Free Press. Good morning.
NIRAJ WARIKOO: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why did DHS do this at all?
WARIKOO: Well, DHS is concerned about what they see as abuse of the student visa program. Prosecutors filed a sentencing memo in Detroit recently which said that there's a potential for abuse. And that was sort of the context for why they created this undercover operation starting in about 2015, 2016.
INSKEEP: OK. First, I should note, you said 2015 or '16, so this goes back to the Obama administration. President Trump has his own immigration policies, but this is not necessarily part of that. It came from before, right?
WARIKOO: Exactly. They started this when President Obama was in office, correct.
INSKEEP: Now, then the question is, should the students have known better? I mean, this university is set up. It's got a building. It's got a website. It's advertising. It's taking tuition. Was there something that would make it obvious to the students that they were committing some kind of fraud?
WARIKOO: Well, if you look at the websites and their Facebook page, it did look legitimate because they listed themselves on the government's website itself as being OK. And that's ultimately who makes a decision on whether it's legitimate. Now prosecutors argue, though, that when the students saw that there were no physical classes - meaning on-site classes - they should have realized it was not a legitimate university.
But in their defense, the attorneys for them are saying that in some cases the students did alert the university and say, hey, where are the classes? I thought there were going to be classes. And then some of them even transferred out. But even those students are now in legal trouble. So some of those have gotten arrested and are losing their immigration status. So even if they did realize something...
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Even students who realized it was bogus and tried to go to another school could still be deported?
WARIKOO: Exactly. Yeah. That's the problem, that even those who had left the university, their legal status is no longer valid now because they were enrolled at a university - even if they were there for just one or two months. So some of them were there for a short period and then said - you know? - something about this doesn't look right. There's - I can't find the classes.
Some of them are going to the site in the Detroit suburb and saying, hey, you know, where's the classes? And they kept getting the runaround from the university, which, of course, was staffed by undercover agents.
INSKEEP: Do - I mean, is there reason to believe that there are just thousands and thousands of people around the world looking for a fake university opportunity in the United States to get a visa?
WARIKOO: Well, you know, there are some, you know, obviously problematic universities known as diploma mills. You know, that's been a problem in academia for years. But in some of those other cases, you know, the government will either shut them down or sanction them. Or there's some ways to, you know, take away their accreditation. In this case, they just created a whole entire fake university, which is, I think, what concerns people.
The other thing is, also, they arrested them, you know? If they had just shut - you know, shut down the university and maybe sanctioned them, that would've been one thing, but to arrest them in detention centers - and some of them were housed with, you know, just sort of violent criminals. And it was traumatic for a lot of the students, many of them who did not have any criminal records.
INSKEEP: And most of them, of course, have left the United States either voluntarily or now face deportation proceedings. Mr. Warikoo, thank you very much.
WARIKOO: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Niraj Warikoo has been covering the story of the fake University of Farmington for the Detroit Free Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.