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

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.

The arrests were followed by raids to snare racketeers who misuse the student visa to help unqualified foreigners to stay and work in the US. 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 and charged them with visa fraud and harbouring 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,

Starting in 2015, the university was part of an undercover operation dubbed “Paper Chase” and designed to identify recruiters and entities engaged in immigration fraud, according to the indictment.

Homeland Security agents started posing as university officials in February 2017. The immigration crimes continued until this month and involved Homeland Security agents posing as owners and employees of the university.

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 all over the country.

The number of students apprehended could be around 200, according to 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 some of them could be looking at a jail term as well.

There was no response from ICE to requests for information about the number of Indian students arrested or detained and their fate.

In one of the early morning raids, as described in 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.

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

The enrolled students, the indictments alleged, 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.

“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 operation staged by US authorities to catch and punish those suspected of misusing the student visa programme. In 2016, US authorities used a sting-operation on a university in New Jersey state for the same purpose, And they reported success with 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.

“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 United States Attorney Matthew Schneider, who spearheads the prosecution of the case.

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