WASHINGTON — One hundred and thirty students were arrested Jan. 31 for their association with Farmington University in Michigan, a fake university set up by the Department of Homeland Security to target foreign students who were staying in the U.S. without proper authorization.
"We have arrested 130 foreign nationals on civil immigration charges," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Carissa Cutrell was quoted as telling the Detroit Free Press. She added that more arrests could be made in the following days.
The American Telugu Association said on its Web site that it contacted several attorneys and confirmed that arrest warrants for 600 students had been issued. All of the arrested students face immediate deportation and could also face criminal charges. A grand jury will next determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the students with knowingly committing immigration fraud.
Students were arrested throughout the country. Rahul Reddy, an Indian American immigration attorney in Houston, Texas, said in a live-stream on YouTube that students who may have been enrolled at the university were detained in Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte and St. Louis.
Dr. Raghava Reddy Ghosala, a psychiatrist and president of the North American Telugu Association, told PTI that the "trapping of innocent students like this is a crime. This is illegal and immoral.” He has been in touch with several of these students detained by ICE as part of its nationwide crackdown on the "pay-and-stay" racket.
The arrests of the students came a day after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested eight foreigners — all of whom are either Indian nationals or Indian Americans — for aiding foreign students to remain in the U.S. though they had no formal course of study.
An indictment unveiled last week stated that the arrested students knew they were committing fraud. “Each of the foreign citizens who enrolled and made tuition payments to the university knew that they would not attend accrual classes, earn credits or make progress towards an actual degree in a particular field of study — a pay-to-stay scheme,” the indictment said.
“Rather their intent was to fraudulently maintain their student visa status and to obtain work authorization under the CPT (Curricular Practical Training) program,” it said.
The eight recruiters obtained more than $250,000 from the scheme, according to the indictment. They have been arrested and are in custody.
The Justice Department named the eight recruiters, but not the students. The recruiters were identified as Bharath Kakireddy from Florida, Aswanth Nune from Atlanta, Suresh Reddy Kandala from Virginia, Phanideep Karnati from Kentucky, Prem Kumar Rampeesa from North Carolina, Santosh Reddy Sama from California, Avinash Thakkallapally from Pennsylvania, and Naveen Prathipati from Dallas.
"These suspects aided hundreds of foreign nationals to remain in the United States illegally by helping to portray them as students, which they most certainly were not," Steve Francis, who heads the ICE investigations office in Detroit, was quoted as saying by the Detroit Free Press.
The recruiters are charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. They each face maximum sentences of five years, according to ICE.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Feb. 5 that it had gained access to 117 of the students arrested by DHS. “Our Embassy and Consulates have obtained consular access to the 117 of them, by proactively visiting 36 different detention sites through the length and breadth of the country.”
“Consular access to the remaining students, estimated at about a dozen, are continuing, including through the 24/7 helpline set up by the Embassy and outreach to the community,” said the MEA in a press statement.
Indian diplomats in Chicago contacted U.S. government officials to get information about the case, P.K. Mishra, the head of Chancery at the Consulate General, told IANS Jan. 31.
The MEA said it was working with U.S. authorities to ensure that the arrested students were being treated humanely with thought to their “custom-sensitive” dietary needs. The Ministry also stated that it was connecting the students to attorneys and community support services
The ATA has set up an emergency help team to aid those affected.
It conducted a webinar with immigration lawyers on Jan. 31 evening on the Farmington case and student visas and urged students to “be wary of fake agents who promise illegal ways to stay in the U.S. through admissions in unaccredited colleges and universities.”
In Vijayawada, the Andhra Pradesh Non-Resident Telugu Society, the official platform of the state government, said it would extend help to arrested Telugu students through its 150 coordinators in the U.S. APNRT Society president Ravikumar P. Vemuru said that the students could contact the coordinators listed on the society website.
IANS reports: Although the arrests and the charges came during a period of heightened immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump, the fake institution called Farmington University was part of an operation called "Paperchase" set up in 2015 by Democratic President Barack Obama's administration.
The so-called university offered student visas without requiring them to attend classes, enabling them to work illegally.
This is at least the second fake university run by government agencies.
The Obama administration officials had set up the University of North Jersey and ensnared over 1,000 students, most of them from India and China.
Twenty-one people who acted as student visa brokers were arrested in the crackdown in 2016.
The U.S. law enforcement frequently uses elaborate sting operations by undercover agents to deter crimes of all types.
The ATA said that the news was brought to its attention by the affected students and their friends and that the association's legal and local teams in various cities swung into action for guidance and help.