For some time now, the U.S. has been on the lookout for students who enroll in graduate programs solely for the purpose of obtaining additional CPT (Curricular Practical Training), particularly when they do not “win” the H-1B  lottery. Indeed, USCIS has issued Requests for Evidence (RFEs) regarding H petitions when it suspects that a student is not really engaged in a full-time program of study, but enrolled to benefit from a university’s CPT program. Now, DHS reportedly has been operating a nonexistent university for the purpose of “identifying” such students.

In 2015, ICE set up a fake university as a sting operation. The University of Farmington, located in Michigan, touted its STEM curriculum and flexible schedule that would allow students to work while attending the university. The tuition was relatively low – $8,500 a year for undergraduates and $11,000 for graduate students. The university was apparently nothing more than a cover story for students who were essentially buying extensions of their student visas and procuring work authorization. It was not until 2017, however, when federal agents started posing as university officials that the sting operation picked up speed. More than 600 students enrolled. Of those, 130 across the country have been arrested on civil immigration charges. Eight foreign nationals who acted as “recruiters” were arrested on conspiracy and harboring charges. The recruiters allegedly helped to create and procure false documents and received kickbacks for their efforts. An attorney for one of the recruiters has argued that the sting operation was unfair entrapment. Almost all of the 130 students arrested were Indian nationals who originally came to the U.S. in valid F student status. The Indian government has been lobbying for their release.

While the University of Farmington sting is particularly big, this is not the first time that ICE has done this. In 2016, recruiters who enrolled foreign students at another fake university, the University of Northern New Jersey, were arrested in a “pay to play” scheme.

Although those arrested in both stings have said that they were “deceived” or entrapped, the prosecution in the Farmington case has alleged in the indictment that the students were well-aware of the illegal nature of the university’s activities.

While the Trump Administration has not yet proposed any major changes to the F-1 Student Visa Program, it is evident that with this sting operation, along with new guidance and memoranda, the government is clamping down on OPT (Optional Practical Training) and CPT work authorization. All along, the Administration has been concerned that students using practical training have been disadvantaging U.S. workers. For example, USCIS has made it harder for students to work at third-party locations and made it more likely that they will fall out of status. Furthermore, a new interpretation of the regulations draws attention to the fact that USCIS is now questioning whether students can have more than 12 months total of combined CPT and OPT at the same educational level.

If you have questions about how the new guidance and memoranda may affect students, especially those who will apply for a Cap H-1B this season, please reach out to your Jackson Lewis attorney.