Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested hundreds of foreign students last week, all enrolled at a fake school called the University of Farmington. ICE set up the operation in 2015 as an elaborate sting to target so-called “pay-to-stay” immigration schemes.
Facing certain deportation, many of those students left the country. Others remain in ICE detention or were released with a scheduled date to appear before an immigration judge. But because of a quiet change the Trump administration made to immigration policy, anyone who didn’t leave the U.S. before Tuesday may not be able to come back to the country for years.
“You are unlawfully present in this country if you don't leave the country,” Rahul Reddy, an immigration lawyer in Houston, told Farmington students on a conference call last week. “If you don’t do that, there’s a good chance you will be barred from re-entry.”
The University of Farmington may have been a front, run by ICE agents, but there are some legitimate schools that operate on a similar model. They’re attractive options for foreign students looking for a legal way to live and work in the U.S.
As with Farmington, however, students at those universities also face the threat of deportation — and a years-long ban from entering the U.S. — if they stop fulfilling certain requirements, like the number of hours they attend classes. And they may not even know.
“We get students asking, ‘Am I safe? Am I good?'"
Foreign students found themselves staring down that possibility back in August, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changed how officials count what’s called “unlawful presence,” or students in violation, somehow, of the terms of their stay. Since 1997, the policy gave students 180 days from the day after Immigration Services determined them to be out of status. But the new version starts the 180-day clock as soon as a student falls out of status — whether or not the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has noticed or notified the student.
That countdown ended for the first time on Monday. Now, any student enrolled at Farmington before the policy went into effect on Aug. 8 and who’s still in the U.S. can’t return to the country for at least three years. A group of four universities challenging the policy in court had asked a judge to stay enforcement pending their case, but he declined to rule by Monday.
“I didn’t have any other option”
As word of the new 180-day deadline spread, many foreign students scrambled to leave the U.S.
J., who asked to be identified by his first initial, was enrolled at University of Farmington for nine months. When he heard about the raids, he booked a flight home to India the next day.
“I don’t want to stay illegally in the U.S.,” he said. “As an international student, we are trusting the universities. I didn’t have any other option.”
Lakshmi, another student from India, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was enrolled in University of Farmington for nearly two years, while working as a software engineer. He heard about the ICE raids on Thursday and left for Canada that night.
“I built all my career, four and a half years, in the United States,” he said. “My primary focus is [that] I need to come back to the United States. If it won't happen, I don't know. I don't have any idea. My mind is in the question mark.”
Both the University of Farmington and legitimate schools offer what’s called Curricular Practical Training, or CPT, from the first day of enrollment. International students typically have to attend courses for a full year before getting work permits, but exceptions can be made for work considered “integral” to a student’s course of study. And the school determines what’s “integral.”
In many cases, students enroll at these universities with the explicit goal of maintaining their authorization to work. The students at the University of Farmington, for example, knew they were signing up for a school with no classes — but they wanted to maintain their visa status and keep working. ICE also conducted a similar sting operation in 2016, when agents arrested 21 people who recruited students to the University of Northern New Jersey, another fake school set up by the agency. Over 1,000 students had enrolled, and many were deported on charges that they participated in visa fraud.
In the wake of these high-profile stings, even students at legitimate universities are starting to worry about their legal status.
Vanisha, who asked to be identified by only her first name, earned a master’s degree in the U.S. and was working as a software engineer. But then she was denied an H1-B visa, which would have allowed her to continue working under the sponsorship of her employer. Like Lakshmi, she looked around for options. She even called the admissions officer (an undercover ICE agent) at Farmington but ultimately decided the school was suspect.
“They're saying, ‘No need to attend college even one time,’” she said. “Fortunately, I did not join there.”
Instead, Vanisha enrolled at Campbellsville University, a private Baptist school in Kentucky. But when she heard about the ICE raids at Farmington, she worried if she should leave the country too — despite her school’s assurances that her work permit is legal.
The legitimate schools
Programs like Vanisha’s have catalyzed rare growth in largely declining international student population. Between March 2017 and March 2018, the total number of international students across the country declined by half a percent, according to data published by DHS. But in Kentucky, the number of master’s degree students more than doubled in that same period.
The majority of the growth came from just two private universities: Campbellsville and University of the Cumberlands, which together hosted 84 percent of all international master’s students in Kentucky.
In addition to full-time, on-campus undergraduate, and graduate degrees, the schools also offer master’s programs with mostly online curricula, geared toward professionals. Many students don’t even live in Kentucky but take online courses and only need to come to campus one weekend per semester.
“We feel it’s an improved version of higher education,” said Trey Jarboe, associate vice president of enrollment at the University of the Cumberlands. “It’s not just open to international students. Of course, it’s one that’s attractive for them.”
But the program setup worries immigration lawyers like Reddy. “We’re concerned that even if they are not students at University of Farmington, they are not following the regulations,” he told VICE News.
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment about the Farmington sting because the investigation is still ongoing. But when officials investigate these schools, they typically look for red flags like high numbers of international students compared to overall student population; enrollment of more students than the buildings would accommodate; and high numbers of students enrolled in Curricular Practical Training, compared to total international students.
In the past when ICE has conducted raids on universities considered to be fraudulent, students could have been given the benefit of the doubt and offered the opportunity to leave the country or transfer to a legitimate program.
But going forward under Immigration Services’ new policy, those same students could now be deported immediately if 180 days have lapsed in their legal status.
“We get students asking, ‘Am I safe? Am I good?’,” said Keith Spears, vice president of Communication at Campbellsville University. “We want to reassure them as much as possible that we are doing everything under the law. But if I were in their position, I’d still be asking.”
Cover image: In this Oct. 22, 2018, photo U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents surround and detain a person during a raid in Richmond, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)