Nearly 600 students from India face deportation or criminal charges after the arrest Wednesday of eight men of Indian origin who had enrolled them at a fake university run by undercover US agents.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Nearly 600 students from India face deportation or criminal charges after the arrest Wednesday of eight men of Indian origin who had enrolled them at a fake university run by undercover US agents.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Hundreds of Indian students face jail, deportation in US college scam

The justice department’s Michigan branch announced the arrest of the eight men, whose names indicated they were either Indians or American citizens of Indian descent, from all over the country, charged with visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit
By Yashwant Raj | Hindustan Times, Washington
UPDATED ON JAN 31, 2019 09:30 PM IST

Hundreds of students from India face deportation or criminal charges after the arrest Wednesday of eight men of Indian origin who had enrolled them at a fake university run by undercover US agents in a sting operation to snare racketeers who misuse the student visa to help unqualified foreigners stay and work.

US justice department’s Michigan branch announced the arrest of the eight men, whose names indicated they were either Indians or American citizens of Indian descent, all over the country, charged with visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday.

The alleged recruiters arrested were identified as Barath Kakireddy, of Florida; Suresh Kandala, of Virginia; Phanideep Karnati, of Kentucky; Prem Rampeesa, of North Carolina; Santosh Sama, of California; Avinash Thakkallapally, of Pennsylvania; Aswanth Nune, of Georgia; and Naveen Prathipati, of Texas,

A number of students enrolled in this fake institution, University of Farmington in Michigan state, were also taken into custody by agents of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an early morning swoop — “5:00 am and thereabouts”, said someone who was told of it by witnesses — all over the country.

Those apprehended could be around 200, according to official sources and witness accounts, of the total of an estimated 600 enrolled. But, those in the know warned, all 600 could be on the deportation list, and only, if they were lucky. Some of them could be looking at a jail term as well.

The Indian embassy here and its consulates have been in touch with US officials and also with some of affected students or those who know them and is working on how to help them.

There was no response from ICE to request for information about the number of Indian students arrested or detained and their fate — if they were being detained or arrested for deportation eventually or that they could also be charged with criminal offenses, and tried and incarcerated here.

In one of the early morning raids, as described in a second-hand account, government agents asked students to name their professors at the school to test whether they were complicit in the scam — of enrolling in a school knowing it had never held classes, because it wasn’t meant to as a “pay-to-stay” operation.

“Don’t worry, we know you can’t name them,” one agent is said to have told the student.

University of Farmington was a fake institution started and run by undercover agents from the Department of Homeland Security since 2015, said one of the three related indictments that were unsealed Wednesday, to “identify recruiters and entities engaged in immigration fraud”. It was not staffed with educators or instructors, had no curriculum and held no classes or educational activities. It was run out of a commercial building.

The enrolled students, the indictments alleged, were not victims of the scam, but willful 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.

“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 authorization for foreign students).

“Each student knew that the University’s program was not approved by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was illegal, and that discretion should be used when discussing the program with others.”

This was the second such sting operation staged by US authorities to catch and punish those suspected of misusing the student visa programme, which comes with work authorization of varying duration, to bring over job seekers with the promise of a stable job and stay and citizenship at some stage, as students with no course work requirements.

In 2016, US authorities used a sting-operation university in New Jersey state for the same purpose, And they reported success with a haul of arrests of 11 Indians or those of Indian descent, along with 11 Chinese, or Americans of Chinese descent. The scam was the same, with ethnically diverse perpetrators. Indians went solo in the Farmington scam, and it still didn’t work.

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