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The Student Sting: The Troubling Inside Story of ICE's Fake University
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=21602"><span class="small">Amanda Holpuch, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Saturday, 05 December 2020 09:06

Holpuch writes: "Ramesh used to talk to his friends in Michigan a lot on the phone."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents make an arrest. (photo: Charles Reed/AP)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents make an arrest. (photo: Charles Reed/AP)

The Student Sting: The Troubling Inside Story of ICE's Fake University

By Amanda Holpuch, Guardian UK

05 December 20

Ramesh thought the people who encouraged him to recruit overseas students to an illegal ‘visa mill’ were his friends – but they worked for US immigration authorities

amesh used to talk to his friends in Michigan a lot on the phone.

Usually it was about applications to the University of Farmington, the school where they worked and where he recruited students to attend. But they would also talk about their lunches, cars and Ramesh’s unsuccessful job search.

Farmington provided international students who had finished their studies at other schools with the documents needed to maintain their student visas, without making them go to classes – also known as a visa mill.

The school also gave those papers to Ramesh, whose tuition bill was erased after he recruited a certain number of students. When he brought in more students, he got a portion of the profit. In return, students received the documentation they needed to stay in the US.

For 17 months, Ramesh thought that he and the other Farmington employees were in on the scheme together. He was wrong.

On 29 January 2019, he and seven other recruiters were arrested in Michigan, where they had been summoned for a meeting about the school.

Ramesh knew he had been doing illegal things. What he didn’t know is he had been doing them under the supervision of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (Ice’s) secretive investigative wing, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which had created the school.

The so-called “Operation Paper Chase” became public when an indictment was unsealed on 30 January 2019. Headlines blared with the news of a fake Ice university and hundreds of students scrambled to respond to deportation orders.

Ramesh, who returned to his home country of India in February after spending 13 months in prison, shared hundreds of case documents and more than 17 hours of audio recordings with the Guardian, providing a detailed look at the sting operation. His real name is not being used out of concerns about finding work.

“This school doesn’t have any classes, no curriculum, no professors, intentionally,” Ramesh told the Guardian. “Intentionally I joined this school because I don’t have any money to pay for some other college.”

The 29-year-old said he understood why the government deported him, but he could not understand why he was encouraged to recruit students to the fake university.

“I feel very bad because they trusted me, they must have trusted me,” he said. “I feel really bad, that must have been a very painful situation.”

Ramesh wants to be able to afford nice watches and cars, but he is not a criminal mastermind.

He entered the US legally in February 2015 to attend school in California, where he received a master’s in computer science.

After graduating, he enrolled in another school to maintain his student visa. But the school lost its accreditation shortly after he enrolled, imperiling his visa and leaving him short on cash because he said he was not refunded the $25,000 tuition.

A friend then recommended Farmington and he enrolled in September 2017.

Farmington appeared to have accreditation and was listed on the US state department website. Its own website and documents said it was a federally recognized university.

It was also appealing because Ramesh could get his tuition waived by recruiting students.

It was a good – and illegal – arrangement for him which became even better – and more illegal – when he started to make money by recruiting students.

Two of his main contacts in this scheme were Ali Milani, the school’s president, and Carey Ferrante, a staff member. They had hundreds of calls and were in contact on email and Facebook. Both were undercover agents and their aliases are used in place of their real names throughout the story.

Their calls were first and foremost about checking in on applications for would-be students, sorting out payments and determining how many more students they could accept.

Occasionally, they were simply friendly.

On 24 May 2018, Ramesh tells Milani: “I just wanted to check in on your wellbeing, that’s it.” Thirty seconds later, the call is over.

And in one bizarre call, the pair arrange to get a fake college transcript for a US citizen.

The citizen contacted them because he was in love with a woman whose parents didn’t approve of him because he didn’t have a college education. The man is hoping for a transcript to show the woman’s parents he has a degree.

Milani says: “We’ll bill him sometime early next week and then we’ll send it out to him once he pays.”

Despite their seeming partnership, only Ramesh was charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbor aliens for profit. The government seized $12,166 of the money he made.

After watching the flow of applications, he wonders today where the money has gone. Based on the more than 600 students they recruited for $10,000 in tuition, paid in installments, it is likely the government took in millions of dollars. “No taxpayer gets that money, so what happens to that money?” Ramesh said.

At the same time, there have been questions about how much time and resources Ice used to arrest people on student visas, who are vetted by the US government and closely monitored.

In November 2019, Senator Kamala Harris, now the vice-president-elect, said the operation “isn’t just cruel, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars”. In January, the Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren wrote to the US Department of Education asking for more details on the “anti-immigration activities”.

Faiza Patel, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said when the US government leads an expansive sting operation targeting a group, it feeds a narrative that there is a “huge threat”.

“So every time you make a case, whether it’s a sting or not, you’re sort of notching one more threat event up,” Patel said.

And while several people involved with this case were clearly doing something wrong, Patel said: “The government has to prioritize what it spends its time and resources on and they do that fairly strategically.”

In this case, a clear part of the strategy was letting foreign students know that they are being watched. “Ice certainly wants to be seen as a force that is watching everybody, so that immigrant communities, whether they are documented or undocumented, will be afraid and will feel sort of suppressed from taking their full position in our society,” Patel said.

When the final Farmington recruiter was sentenced in January, Ice said in a statement that the operation not only highlighted the existence of visa mills, but also “helped create a feeling of omnipresence by law enforcement”.

In a statement to the Guardian, HSI said: “All individuals criminally charged in connection with the University of Farmington case pleaded guilty, which means they had committed the crimes in which they were accused.”

The agency also pointed to an editorial by a former director of Ice, Derek Benner, which argued that this type of undercover investigation gave the government “an inside look into how these networks operate”.

“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,” Benner wrote.

The government has always said that each of the 250 students it arrested knew they were violating the law.

Lawyers who volunteered to help the students have, however, described a more complicated situation.

Some students told attorneys they had attempted to transfer out of the school when they realized classes were not being held, but couldn’t get a school official to approve the transfer. Others said they were suspicious, but were waiting to see what was going on.

Two people who worked in the same building where the university was based told the local news station WXYZ that students had showed up asking about classes.

And in calls with Ramesh, undercover agents made conflicting statements.

In September 2017, Ramesh told Milani that some would-be students were asking why the school didn’t ask for transcripts from their previous school, a normal administrative step. Milani underlines that the school is there to help maintain status. “If they really want to go to classes and everything like that, I don’t want them here,” Milani said.

It’s a point Milani made repeatedly.

But in a March 2018 call, Milani tells Ramesh he is eating chicken biryani brought in by a student. Ramesh then asks if there are students going to classes, and Milani says there are.

Throughout the school’s history, students raised questions about its operation. Some left when they became suspicious, while others unenrolled when they found other ways to stay in the US, like with marriage or work visas.

In March 2018, Ramesh called Ferrante to warn her that 60 to 70 students wanted out.

Before he can explain why, however, he asks a question: “Carey [laughter] I want to tell you one thing: you are not a Department of Homeland Security officer, right?”

Twice, Ferrante answers no, and feeds the question back to him, knowing he would respond in the negative.

He then explains that a man contacted him and other students claiming Farmington was a front for the DHS. The individual had also contacted the school, according to Ferrante, who says she is unfamiliar with fake universities.

Ramesh instructs her to search online for the University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ), the first known Ice university. The school shuttered in April 2016, resulting in the arrest of 21 recruiters. The 1,076 students there had their visas revoked but were not given immediate deportation orders like the Farmington students.

After reading about UNNJ out loud, Ferrante coolly dismisses his concerns.

He sounds reassured, calls the guy a “stupid fellow” and Ferrante agrees: “He’s an idiot,” before ending the call with “thank you rockstar.”

Farmington continued to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from students through 2018.

But to bring the case to a close, investigators needed to gather the recruiters in one place.

They lived in different parts of the country, so the agents dreamed up a meeting to take place in Michigan and set about convincing the recruiters it was important they attend in person, after conducting business primarily by phone, email and Facebook for the previous year.

One of the recruiters, Santosh Reddy Sama, really was not interested. He planned on being in India for a few months, said he had family issues and insisted someone else could attend in his place.

But Sama was important because, as of 6 November 2018, he had been paid $59,000 for the recruitment of students. Case documents showed he had brought in $108,750 from the students he recruited – leaving $49,000 for the agency.

After much prodding, Sama was convinced and the school wired him $2,500 so he could buy a ticket to return to the US.

Like Ramesh, he was arrested at the meeting. Sama, 29, was given a longer prison sentence and in August was denied compassionate release because of the Covid-19 outbreak. In the request for release, Sama’s lawyer said his wife was suffering from serious health issues in India and that Sama had underlying health conditions including diabetes.

Ramesh was released from prison on 24 February and landed in India two days later on a commercial flight. He said the agent who put him on the flight told him to say “bye bye to the US” and warned him never to come back.

From his home in India, he said his prison experience was traumatic and he was not comfortable speaking about it.

“I saw each and everything in front of me,” Ramesh said. “I saw death and I came back. God saved me.”

The one prison experience he was willing to speak about was the seven Donald Trump books he read in the library. Ramesh is an avowed Trump fan and found solace in the president’s books, including Think Big. “He told me when you are in a bad situation, you have to be very strong,” he said.

He is now looking for work and said it has been difficult for the recruiters to rebuild their careers in India. “I think in my life it’s written this fellow has to go to US prison for 13 months and he has to learn something,” he said.

And while he has some level of peace about his experience, he has plenty of anger reserved for the people he thought were co-conspirators, and friends: Milani, Ferrante and the fake school’s director of student affairs, Ned Roberts. “They acted like a family member,” he said.

Ahead of the January 2019 meeting, he talked with Ferrante about a dinner that would happen in Michigan for all the recruiters and staff.

On the 25th, a few days before flying out, Ferrante tells him: “I’m excited to meet you.”

“Oh ya me also,” Ramesh says, then laughs before continuing: “I think Mr Milani is excited to meet me also.” your social media marketing partner