SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN and two fellow Democratic lawmakers are asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to explain the department’s involvement in the creation of a fake university and outline how it plans to cooperate with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts to catch students who are fraudulently using visas in government-sponsored exchange programs.   

More than 250 students enrolled at a fake university called the University of Farmington in Michigan were arrested last year after entering the US with student visas to study here. Many have been deported, while a handful have filed lawsuits against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the sting operation known as “Operation Paper Chase.”  

Meanwhile, the role of federal immigration enforcement in higher education gained attention locally last week when Massachusetts Institute of Technology officials sent a memo to faculty and staff notifying them that they should expect a visit from ICE to assess the immigration status of researchers, postdoctoral students, and visiting scholars. 

In their letter, Warren, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, the vice chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Susan Davis of California, chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment, asked DeVos to explain the extent of her department’s “role in – or knowledge of – DHS’s scheme.”  

The lawmakers are also asking her to explain the role of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), which DeVos oversees, in the accreditation of the University of Farmington. 

The fake school enrolled 600 students, charging a $100 application fee and $7,000 to $11,000 in annual tuition fees. Some students had taken out loans in their home countries and have since been deportedThe college offered no classes and no instructors, something students later discovered when arriving to the US with legal student visas. The school even has a campus building in Farmington Hills, a Detroit suburb. 

In December, acting deputy director of ICE Derek Benner said that the students “knowingly and willfully violated their nonimmigrant visa status and consequently were subject to removal” by remaining in the country while not attending school.   

Court documents recentlyrevealedthat the Department of Homeland Security created multiple fake universities accredited by ACCSC as part of an entrapment operation targeting foreign students. The universities were listed on the accreditation agency’s site, which foreign students look to for guidance on where they can study and acquire a student visa.  

“These actions undermine ACCSC’s credibility as an accreditor and the legitimacy of the US higher education system as a whole,” the lawmakers wrote in a separate letter to the accrediting agency“It is deeply misleading, unfair, and irresponsible to falsify accreditation information that students can and should use to evaluate their educational options before uprooting their lives and making significant financial investments in their education.” 

In addition to the arrests made at University of Farmington, recently released emails reveal that senior officials at the Education Department and the White House Domestic Policy Council engaged in discussions with the Department of Homeland Security regarding the status of another higher education accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.  

The lawmakers have requested responses to their letters no later than January 28, 2020. 

Federal immigration officials announced last August that they planned to begin visiting employers of post-graduate students, focusing at least initially on students holding academic visas in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. The policy allowing such visits began was developed during the Bush administration but they had not occurred very often. 

According to the federal register, immigration officials will generally give 48 hours’ notice of any visit, but “may conduct an unannounced site visit if it is triggered by a complaint or other evidence of noncompliance with regulations.” 

ICE officials verify visa documents are up to date and authentic, and will also check worksites and potentially ask about how the university funds or decides on the students’ salaries.  

Following last week’s memo to MIT faculty and staff, the director of the university’s international scholar’s office sent out a second memo on Tuesday to students and staff clarifying that the ICE visit was only for a specific subset of foreign students with an extended visa. MIT says that there are 221 people at the university that fall into that category who are postdoctoral associates and research scientists.  

Several activists told CommonWealth that they were kicked off campus by MIT police last weekend for trespassing while distributing civil rights related literature to help students concerned about the immigration officials’ visit.  

A spokeswoman for MIT said she had no more information on last week’s incident, but mentioned that the university has listed the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s “Know Your Rights flyer” on their site.