SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The university's website had photos of students hard at work, looking to the future. The school had a Latin motto and a crest. The president of the university, Dr. Ali Minali (ph), spoke four languages. But the University of Farmington wasn't for real. This week, federal agents shut it down. They're also the ones who created it.
For the past four years, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has been running the university as an elaborate sting operation to try to catch foreigners fraudulently enrolling in schools just to get a student visa that allows them to work in the United States.
Karin Fischer of The Chronicle of Higher Education joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.
KARIN FISCHER: Well, thanks for having me.
SIMON: So tell us how this worked.
FISCHER: Well, ICE, the enforcement agency of Homeland Security, set up this sting. They set up the fake university. And they went through a lot of trouble to do it. I mean, they created a Twitter presence. They put up regular updates for the calendar. They announced snow days. I mean, there's been some bad weather in Michigan, where this university was supposed to be.
And they kept it going until this week. They decided that they would shut it down. And they've arrested eight people who they say were the recruiters for the school. And they've been, actually, arresting some of the alleged students as well.
SIMON: Now, we should make it plain. By the way, we're not talking about the University of Maine in Farmington, Maine.
FISCHER: No, no.
SIMON: Just a postal drop, yeah, essentially. How hard is it - was it for ICE to set up a fake university?
FISCHER: Well, this is the second time they've done it, actually. Just a couple of years ago, in 2016, they set up a similar university, the University of Northern New Jersey. And it was a very similar kind of operation, where they ended up arresting 20 people who were acting as the recruiters and rounded up about a thousand students. And they did very similar things - invent course schedules and invent a fake president and be active on social media.
SIMON: So essentially, is all they have to do create a website? Is that what you can do nowadays?
FISCHER: I think it's definitely a little bit more complicated than that. In part, they're tapping in to a pre-existing and not fraudulent kind of situation that's happening in a number of foreign countries, and particularly in India, where many of the people who signed up to go to the University of Farmington were from.
If you go to India, you will see there are agencies that will help connect people who want to both study and work in foreign countries. And some of them are completely aboveboard, and some of them are pretty shady. And obviously, ICE was able to really tap into that kind of underground network of people who want to circumvent the visa system.
SIMON: Any well-intentioned, earnest students get caught up in this, near as you can tell?
FISCHER: It may be. Several years ago, we at The Chronicle investigated a number of sham schools that were actual shams set up by people that were not the U.S. government. And when we talked to students, there were a number of them who said, for example, I was at a university. I was having trouble with my program. I transferred here. I read about this university online. And then I got there, and it seemed kind of too good to be true. I wasn't going to class.
And so it is possible that some of these were really well-intentioned students. But given that this was a university that operated out of a single office suite, where people who worked in the same building said they never saw a person around, it's really hard to believe that once they got here, most of these students were thinking they were actually going to get a degree.
SIMON: What a shame they didn't have a chance for homecoming.
FISCHER: (Laughter) You know, it's a shame, too, though, because most students who come here are really well-intentioned. And they get a little tarred by some of this stuff.
SIMON: Yeah. Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education - thanks so much for being with us.
FISCHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.