DETROIT – Federal law enforcement agencies in Detroit are defending the government's creation of a fake university in Michigan and the arrests of 250 of its students amid a national debate over the sting operation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In statements Friday to the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and the head of the investigative division of ICE in Detroit both said the undercover operations targeting students at the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills were legitimate and aimed at fighting visa fraud.

Federal prosecutors announced in January that agents with ICE had secretly set up the fake university, which enrolled more than 600 foreign students studying science and technology. The Department of Justice called it a "pay to stay" scheme. 

A Free Press report two weeks ago revealed that the number of students arrested on immigration violations in the case had risen to 250. The story drew widespread attention, with a number of other media outlets picking up the story and several political leaders such as U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, Michigan, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, and Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts criticizing the sting or raising questions about it.

"This is cruel and appalling," Warren said on Twitter. "These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them."

Slotkin said Saturday that the case "raises a number of serious questions, and I'll be following up to ensure they are answered." Harris called it "cruel" and "a waste of taxpayer dollars. Officials must be held accountable for this." Some have called for House hearings.

But Vance Callender, special agent in charge of the Detroit office of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), said in a statement to the Free Press that “HSI special agents, as part of this undercover operation, made it abundantly clear in their interactions with potential University of Farmington enrollees that the school did not offer academic or vocational programs of any kind. The individuals who enrolled in the University of Farmington did so intentionally."

The students had arrived legally, mostly from India, and were on F-1 student visa programs when they enrolled at the university that was secretly staffed by undercover agents and had a fake website. Nearly 80% of the 250 detained students have been removed from the U.S., said ICE.

Callender of ICE's HSI said the students "knew the school did not offer courses or confer degrees, and remained enrolled for about 18 months, even though they never attended one single class. They violated the terms of their non-immigrant status in the U.S. by using the F-1 program as a pay-to-stay scheme. Investigations like these provide first-hand evidence of how people exploit the non-immigrant student visa system. This improves the agency’s efforts to uncover fraud, protects the integrity of the system for legitimate students and serves as a deterrent to potential violators."

Defense attorneys for the students have said they believe they were entrapped and didn't realize the university was fake when they enrolled. The University of Farmington was listed on the website of ICE as a school approved by the U.S. government for students and it was also listed by an accreditation agency as an accredited school, said defense attorneys and an official with the accreditation agency.

Some have questioned the tactics of ICE in this case.

Theresa Brown, the director of immigration and cross border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Department of Homeland Security official who worked under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told the Free Press that "it sounded like many of (the students) tried to do their due diligence."

Brown, a former director of immigration and border policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that "one of the things that ICE did that may be kind of questionable is in an effort to make this look like a valid real place, they gave it real credentials, the kinds of real credentials that foreign students would be looking to say: it's right, it's a good place, like saying it was authorized under the DHS website, getting the accrediting organization to give it accreditation. Those are the first two things that if you're trying to check out a university, you'd want to see."

Brown said that foreign students face challenges in trying to understand the U.S. immigration system, where rules often change.

It's "a difficult system to navigate and understand," she said. It's "challenging ... to remain a foreign student in the United States right now."

Many of the students at the University of Farmington had enrolled with the university through a program known as Curricular Practical Training (CPT), which allows students to work in the U.S through a visa program for foreign students. The 250 students were detained at about 34 detention centers across the U.S. and didn't have criminal records, said defense attorneys. The students are being deported because they lost their legal immigration status after their university enrollment was not considered legitimate since it was a fake university created by ICE.

In addition to the 250 students arrested, federal prosecutors charged eight men with being recruiters of the students. Seven of them were sentenced after guilty pleas and will be deported to India after serving their time, said ICE. Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, Kentucky, is to be sentenced in January. 

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, which is prosecuting the recruiters, also defended the undercover operation.

The building that was used as the fake Farmington University campus by the federal government seen on Thursday, February 7, 2019, in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

“This case involved an illegal practice known as ‘pay to stay’ because foreign nationals paid cash for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status as a student — but with no intention of or interest in going to any class or making any progress toward an academic degree," U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement to the Free Press. "If the 'students' truly wanted to obtain an education, they would have attended legitimate graduate programs at other universities. This is because the University of Farmington had no teachers, classes, or educational services — and this was no secret. Instead, the foreign nationals, who were all living and working throughout the United States, were scam artists who committed a fraud upon the United States." 

There are clashing views as to whether the students who enrolled knew there would be no classes at the university.

Defense attorneys have said the students were basically tricked into thinking the university would have them. When some of them inquired about the classes, university officials — who were actually undercover agents — were not responsive or in some cases would tell the students the classes were coming, said attorneys. In other cases, students left the university, but still ended up later getting arrested, said defense attorneys.

Emails obtained by the Free Press earlier this year show a man who called himself "Ali Milani" acting as the university's president lured the students in with promises it was a legitimate university.

But U.S. Attorney Schneider said: "At the outset, they were told there would be no classes and no education. Month after month the 'students' willingly paid the 'University' so that they could fraudulently maintain their status (as a full-time student engaged in educational activities), and falsely obtain documents (Form I-20’s) that would allow them to illegally remain, re-enter, and work in the United States.”

Brown and others have expressed concern that the U.S. is making it more difficult for foreign students, which could affect America's ability to attract talent and reduce U.S. competitiveness.

U.S. Attorney Schneider said: “International students are a very valuable asset to our country. They enrich our universities, and communities by sharing their diverse perspectives, skills and experiences. But, as this and other cases show, the well-intended international student program can be exploited and abused.”

As the Free Press reported earlier, the undercover operation started in 2015, according to federal prosecutors. The fake university was incorporated in the state of Michigan in January 2016, state records show.

In April 2016, in a separate case, federal prosecutors announced that ICE had created a fake university in New Jersey called the University of Northern Jersey. One difference is that in the New Jersey case, federal authorities did not do mass arrests and detentions of the students as they did in January with the University of Farmington.

Another concern is that the students removed to India under what is called "voluntary departure" are not being allowed to return. Voluntary departure usually means that those removed have a better chance of being readmitted later to the U.S. than those who are forcibly deported. Defense attorney Rahul Reddy of Houston said he knows of two cases where University of Farmingon students who left under voluntary departure were not allowed back into the U.S.

Karnati, one of the eight recruiters, pleaded guilty in September to commit visa fraud upon the United States and to harbor aliens for profit. He will be sentenced next month.

Anjali Prasad, the attorney for Karnati and a former federal prosecutor, said: "The idiocy of this sting operation is immediately apparent when you scratch the surface of who was indicted. My client immigrated lawfully to the United States 10 years ago, earned an honest living in a highly technical field, and raised a family here."

"Now he and his family are getting kicked out because he referred students to a university that held itself out to be legitimate," Prasad said. "He never used this university to maintain his own status."

But Schneider said Karnati knowingly and intentionally conspired with others, including the students, to commit visa fraud.

Prasad raised questions about how much money the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part of, received from the students paying tuition. Graduate school costs totaled $11,000 a year, showed the university's website.

Tuition costs shown on the website of the University of Farmington, a fake university created by investigators with ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. More than 600 students had enrolled at the university, said federal prosecutors.

With more than 600 students, that could total millions of dollars that the U.S. government received from the students. Some of the deported students who come from poor rural backgrounds in Telugu-speaking regions of India are now trying to pay back the loans they took out for the tuition, said Telugu-American leader Parmesh Bheemreddy.

Prasad said the undercover operation was not about protecting Americans.

"I don't feel any safer" because the government want after "highly skilled...educated immigrants," she said.

Follow Niraj Warikoo onTwitter: @nwarikoo