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Democratic U.S. Reps. Andy Levin and Susan Davis, as well as Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren are questioning the U.S. Education Department and the accreditor of a fake university about their roles in using the school to entrap foreign-national students.

The lawmakers sent letters Thursday to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges regarding their roles in the fake university set up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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 United States, 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 during the Democratic Obama administration 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 the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Court documents revealed that Homeland Security created multiple fake universities accredited by ACCSC. Lawmakers say it played a key role in the deception by publicly listing the fake universities as accredited, which led some potential students to believe they were enrolling in a real university to maintain their student visas.

"These actions undermine ACCSC's credibility as an accreditor and the legitimacy of the U.S. higher education system as a whole," according to the letter by Levin, Davis and Warren, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts, to ACCSC. "It is deeply misleading, unfair, and irresponsible to falsify accreditation information that students can and should use to evaluate their educational options before uprooting their lives and making significant financial investments in their education."

ICE Acting Deputy Director Derek Benner defended the sting in December, saying "the individuals enrolled because they saw an opportunity to avoid any academic requirements and, instead, work full-time, which was a violation of their non-immigrant status."

Recently released emails reveal that senior officials at the Education Department and the White House Domestic Policy Council discussed the status of a separate troubled accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, and DHS’ Student and Exchange Visitor Program program. The Education Department went on to restore recognition of ACICS as a federally recognized accreditor, raising concerns about Domestic Policy Council and Homeland Security's role in that controversial decision, the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

"As these anti-immigrant activities were ongoing, senior officials at ED were having discussions with the White House Domestic Policy Council regarding the status of ACICS and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program program," lawmakers wrote to DeVos. "While ED went on to formally reinstate ACICS, these emails raise questions about the Domestic Policy Council’s and DHS’ role in that decision."

The lawmakers requested responses to their letters no later than Jan. 28.

"The department cannot comment regarding ongoing DHS or other federal law enforcement activities," said Angela Morabito, a Department of Education spokeswoman. "We will respond appropriately and in due course to Congress."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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