Why the Case of the University of Farmington Isn’t Really a Critique of the Student-Visa System

You’ve heard the one about the fake university set up by the government as a student-visa sting?

The University of Farmington was back in the news last week, after reports that the total number of students arrested hit 250. (A number of recruiters were also charged.) The sham college in the Detroit suburbs attracted fresh outrage, with elected officials like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemning the government for setting out to entrap the students:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter: “Abolish ICE.…

Elizabeth Warren on Twitter: “This is cruel and appalling. These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them. https://t.co/t6kQLiV5oh”

That’s been the prime narrative around the phony university. But I’m not sure how useful it is. For one, I don’t know how to weigh in definitively on the students’ culpability. Warren and Ocasio-Cortez see them as unwitting victims. The indictment says the students knew that they were participating in a “pay to stay” scheme — that the college motto, accreditation, and the other trappings of a legit institution weren’t there to fool the students but to make them believe they could get away with it.

What we do know is that fabricating a whole college takes work. The Farmington subterfuge began nearly four years earlier, back in 2015. (Yes, as I noted back when the news first broke, under President Obama.) Is this the best use of limited resources? Administration of the student-visa system is notoriously stretched thin. There is a backlog of institutions waiting to be recertified to enroll foreign students. Actual sham colleges have operated, sometimes for years, in part because investigative and enforcement resources are stretched thin. When you think about the things that need attention in the student-visa system, you can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a case of misplaced priorities.

But is Farmington really about the student-visa system at all? The allegation underpinning the case is that the people enrolled in the university didn’t want to study in the U.S., they wanted to work. Applying for a work visa, however, is next-to-impossible these days because a cap on the number granted annually hasn’t been lifted for nearly 15 years. Yet, there’s no sign that elected officials will move to address this or any of the other issues facing the broader immigration system.

Using student visas as part of the sting was mainly a matter of convenience, as one of few visas for long-term stay that isn’t limited. By and large, the student-visa system works as it should. More than a million international students are currently in the United States, studying or working legally, through Optional Practical Training. They leave when they are supposed to — overstay rates for international students have actually been falling in recent years.

The University of Farmington never was a real college. There were no professors, no classes or classrooms. And as a critique of the student-visa system, the case rings hollow, too.

What lessons do you draw from the University of Farmington? Share your thoughts by email. I’m at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Database to Track Chinese Universities’ Security Ties

When it comes to Chinese universities, do you really know who you are partnering with? The new Chinese Defence Universities Tracker seeks to give foreign institutions more accurate information about the mililtary and intelligence links of Chinese universities. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which built the database, says that greater numbers of Chinese universities are engaged in classified research, train scientists for security agencies, and collaborate with the military and the defense industry. At least 15 Chinese universities have been implicated in cyberattacks, illegal exports, or espionage, the think tank notes.

The database’s rationale is straightforward: To manage risk and avoid harmful collaborations, universities need better information to understand and evaluate potential partners. This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve found myself looking to Australia for approaches to potential vulnerabilities in international partnerships — if you missed it, last week I wrote about guidelines drafted jointly by the government and higher education in Australia to combat foreign interference.

Colleges File Brief in OPT Case

Dozens of colleges have signed onto an amicus brief in a court case over Optional Practical Training. A group of tech workers are suing to end the program that allows recent international graduates to work, saying that it takes jobs from Americans. But the colleges counter that doing away with OPT could undermine the competitiveness of American higher education.

“The American businesses, corporations, organizations, schools, churches, and communities that benefit from [students’] presence will severely suffer,” said Jane K. Fernandes, president of Guilford College. “As an intersection between academic institutions, international students, and the workforce we aim to support, OPT is the thoroughfare that allows for growth, entrepreneurship, innovation, and globalization.”

Currently, one in five international student-visa holders is actually taking part in the work program. Growth in OPT participation was a rare bright spot in an otherwise sobering picture for international enrollments in the Open Doors report released two weeks ago.

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Around the Globe

A new United Nations treaty will establish universal principles for global recognition of degree programs and courses of study.

Yes, Virginia, this really could be the end of the China boom.

In Hong Kong, funding requests for campus projects were withdrawn because university leaders “failed to control their institutions” during protests.

Universities in Kashmir are likely to remain closed until March 2020 following a grenade attack. Colleges there have been closed since August when the Indian government moved to strip the region of its semi-autonomous status.

India must increase spending on higher education if it hopes to truly expand access, according to a new report.

Women make up just a quarter of the students at Japan’s top public universities.

Why should students have to pay on-campus tuition rates when they study abroad, asks a student columnist at George Washington University.

An Ontario court has struck down a government policy allowing students to opt out of certain university fees.

More than 40 percent of graduates in the U.S., Britain, and other top international destinations say that college didn’t prepare them for a career.


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And finally…

I took some time out from the Thanksgiving festivities — turkey! stuffing! endless games of Pokémon with my older nephew! — to browse this New York Times interactive about celebrating Thanksgiving in a conflict zone. The holiday has passed, but the sentiments still hold true.

’Til next time — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.