8 Indian-origin men held in US immigration scam
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8 Indian-origin men held in US immigration scam

US-based Telugu group says all held are from Andhra, may provide legal aid.

india Updated: Feb 01, 2019 00:00 IST
Yashwant Raj & Srinivasa Rao Apparasu
Yashwant Raj & Srinivasa Rao Apparasu
Hindustan Times, Washington/Hyderabad
Eight Indian origin men were arrested in the US on Wednesday for allegedly enrolling hundreds of students, mostly from India, at a fake university, according to community accounts. (AP)

Eight Indian origin men were arrested in the US on Wednesday for allegedly enrolling hundreds of students, mostly from India, at a fake university, according to community accounts. The authorities did not identify the nationalities of the eight men.

Undercover US agents ran the university to snare racketeers misusing student visas to help unqualified foreigners stay and work in the country. The students now face deportations or criminal charges.

The eight were identified as Barath Kakireddy, Suresh Kandala, Phanideep Karnati, Prem Rampeesa, Santosh Sama, Avinash Thakkallapally, Aswanth Nune, and Naveen Prathipati.

A US-based Telugu organisation said the eight were from Andhra Pradesh and added it would examine the possibility of providing legal aid to them. “If they are deported to India, they would be saved,” said Satish Doddapaneni of the organisation, the Andhra Pradesh Non-Resident Telugus Society.

The eight are either Indians or American citizens of Indian descent, who have been charged with visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit, according to an indictment unsealed on Wednesday.

At least 200 of the 600 students enrolled at the fake institution, the University of Farmington in Michigan state, were also taken into custody in an early morning swoop — “5:00 am and thereabouts” -- all over the country, according to a witness account. All 600 could be on the deportation list and some of them face jail terms as well. Authorities said they were foreigners without identifying their nationalities.

There was no response from authorities to requests for information about the number of Indian students arrested or detained.

It was not immediately clear if they were detained or arrested for deportation eventually or that they could also be charged with criminal offences and tried and incarcerated.

In one of the early morning raids, government agents asked students to name their professors at the university to test whether they were complicit in the scam of enrolling in the fake institution, knowing it had never held classes, people aware of the developments said.

“Do not worry, we know you cannot name them,” one agent is said to have told the students.

Undercover Department of Homeland Security agents ran the fake University of Farmington since 2015 to “identify recruiters and entities engaged in immigration fraud”, said one of the three related indictments unsealed on Wednesday.

The indictments alleged the enrolled students were not victims of the scam but wilful collaborators. “Each of the foreign citizens who ‘enrolled’ and made ‘tuition’ payments to the University knew that they would not attend any actual classes, earn credits, or make academic progress toward an actual degree in a particular field of study -- a ‘pay to stay’ scheme,’’ said one of the indictments.

“Rather, their intent was to fraudulently maintain their student visa status and to obtain work authorization under the CPT [a course-related curricular training programme that allows off-campus work authorisation for foreign students].”

The indictment said each student knew that the US Department of Homeland Security had not approved the University’s programme and it was illegal and that discretion should be used when discussing the program with others.

This is the second such sting operation US authorities have staged to catch and punish those suspected of misusing the student visa programme. The programme comes with work authorisations of varying duration to bring over job seekers with the promise of stable employment and stay and citizenship at some stage.

In 2016, US authorities used a similar sting operation in New Jersey. They reported the arrests of 11 Indians or those of Indian descent along with 11 Chinese or Americans of Chinese descent.

“We are all aware that international students can be a valuable asset to our country. But as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused,” said Michigan’s chief deputy attorney general Matthew Schneider, who spearheads the prosecution in the case.

First Published: Feb 01, 2019 00:00 IST