Facing deportation, Mich. student returns to West Bank after fake university sting

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Najilaa Karim Musarsa, wearing her traditional Palestinian thobe, was among those raided and detained.

A Dearborn Heights student has returned to the West Bank after being detained last week in a nationwide sweep connected to a federal sting operation involving a fake university in Oakland County.

Najilaa Karim Musarsa, 29, was one of 130 students of the phony University of Farmington who were arrested, a family spokesman said.

Musarsa immigrated from the Palestinian territory for educational opportunities, Amer Zahr, a family spokesman and law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, told The Detroit News.

Homeland Security agents tried to entrap people by creating the fake University of Farmington as part of an undercover sting that led to eight recruiters being indicted and at least 130 students nationwide facing deportation, defense attorney John Brusstar said in an interview.

Musarsa's Dearborn Heights apartment was raided on Jan. 31 by ICE agents who arrested her. She was housed at the Calhoun County Detention Center in Battle Creek. It’s unclear how Musarsa became involved in the fake university.

“She has been in America studying for many years on a student visa,” Zahr said. “I cannot get too much into the legal details of her case. I can say that she completed a master program a couple years ago in Pennsylvania before she moved to Michigan.”

Musarsa’s parents live in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, but she has a large extended family in Chicago and many close friends in Detroit who worked on her case, Zahr said.

“They were also notified after she was detained, like the rest of us (and) of course, they were in shock,” Zahr said. 

After her lawyer worked out a voluntary departure, Musarsa departed from Detroit Metro Airport Tuesday and returned to her family's home in the West Bank without anything on her record.

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. illegally, according to prosecutors.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, joined Reps. Thomas Souzzi, D-New York, Rob Woodall, R-Georgia, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, in sending a bipartisan letter to Homeland Security and ICE asking for the full details of the operation and ongoing detention of students.

"We strongly urge DHS and ICE to provide us with regular updates of the ongoing situation and ask that these students are afforded all rights provided to them by law," Lawrence said in a statement Thursday. "I will continue to remain engaged with authorities both at the federal and local level to ensure the humane and dignified treatment of these students."

Indian news reports say as many as 129 Indians were among the 130 detained by ICE and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is demanding they be freed. It's unclear why Musarsa was involved in the case. 

"I don't think she was singled out, just unlucky to get caught in such a case," Zahr said. "She's back in Palestine now with her family. ... Unofficially, she's the only one we know of that's been released from custody so far."

The Musarsa family declined further comment.

More: Lawyer rips feds for University of Farmington sting

Those charged include:

• Bharath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Florida.
• Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta.
• Suresh Reddy Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Virginia.
• Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, Kentucky.
• Prem Kumar Rampeesa, 26, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
• Santosh Reddy Sama, 28, of Fremont, California.
• Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
• Naveen Prathipati, 29, of Dallas.

Six recruiters made initial appearances in federal court in downtown Detroit on Jan. 31. Kakireddy and Kandala were arrested in their home states and are expected to be brought to Detroit soon.

Rampeesa appeared in federal court Wednesday and agreed to be held without bond pending trial.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_