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An ICE official is defending an undercover operation at a fake university federal agents created in Farmington Hills to target immigration fraud.

"The rules and regulations that govern the student visa system help protect the country from individuals who seek to abuse the system or remain illegally in the United States," Derek Benner, acting deputy director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement Friday.

Homeland Security Investigations, he added, "is responsible for investigating these kinds of violations, which is precisely what it did by establishing Farmington to investigate a complex fraud scheme used across the country to undermine U.S. laws and individuals’ safety."

The undercover sting, dubbed "Operation Paper Chase," targeted an immigration fraud scheme that involved at least 600 people who collectively paid recruiters more than $250,000 to stay in the U.S., according to prosecutors.

Homeland Security agents used "the University of Farmington," which had no staff, instructors, curriculum or classes, to arrest eight recruiters accused of visa fraud conspiracy and harboring aliens for profit, according to federal grand jury indictments.

The investigation dates to 2015 but intensified one month into President Donald Trump's tenure as part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration.

Ongoing arrests that began in February have netted about 250 foreign-born students, authorities said. Nearly 80% of those arrested were granted voluntary departure and left the country, according to ICE.

"When a nonimmigrant student decides to enroll in a program of study in the United States, the student must abide by U.S. laws and regulations to maintain their nonimmigrant status. Above all, their primary purpose while in the United States must be to study," Benner said Friday.

The Farmington enrollees, who had secured visas to enroll in another school and were already in the United States when they transferred, "knowingly and willfully violated their nonimmigrant visa status and consequently were subject to removal from the United States," Benner said. 

Despite knowing Farmington offered no classes, Benner added, "the individuals enrolled because they saw an opportunity to avoid any academic requirements and, instead, work full-time, which was a violation of their nonimmigrant status."

Benner went on to say that such undercover investigations "provide law enforcement an inside look into how these networks operate, which was the primary purpose in establishing Farmington." 

"The investigation provided HSI with a better understanding of how recruiters and others abuse the nonimmigrant student visa system. This, in turn, informs and improves DHS’ efforts to uncover fraud at schools, provides insight into networks within the United States that facilitate such abuse, and serves as a deterrent to potential violators both in the short- and long-term."

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