Indian embassy cautions prospective students against “pay to stay” visa racket

A T-shirt given to one student who enrolled at the University of Northern New Jersey. The fake institution was listed on government websites, but held no classes.

WASHINGTON, D.C.— In the wake of the January arrest of 129 Indian students, who had enrolled at a fake university, in what U.S. law enforcement alleged was “a pay to stay” visa racket, the Indian embassy put out an unusual advisory urging India students to “exercise due diligence” while seeking admission to American universities.

The advisory issued on April 10, noted that “in recent years, instances of ‘fake’universities set up by the U.S. law enforcement agencies have come to light,” and stated, “According to the U.S. law enforcement, these universities are run by undercover law enforcement agents of the U.S., who pose as owners and employees of the university.”

“The sole objective of such operations is to identify recruiters and entities engaged in immigration fraud in the U.S.,” the embassy said.

The advisory pointed out that “the most recent examples of such universities are the University of Northern New Jersey set up in 2013 and of Farmington University established in 2015 by the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) of the United States.”

“In both cases,” the embassy said, “a number of Indian students enrolled into these universities, paid the requisite tuition fee and were granted F1 visa as well as Curricular Practical Training (CPT) permission.”

But, the advisory said that “these Indian students, many of whom claimed later that they were caught unawares, were subsequently detained by U.S. law enforcement agencies and subjected to deportation proceedings. They were accused of having violated the U.S. immigration laws and of knowingly remaining enrolled in a ‘fake’university for the sole purpose of continuing their stay in the United States without the intention of pursuing any academic activity.”

Thus, the embassy counseled, “In order to ensure that Indian students do not fall into such ‘traps,’ it is advised that due diligence be exercised while seeking admission in U.S.universities, and cautioned that “the fact that a university is duly accredited by relevant U.S.authorities such as its inclusion in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS), is not an assurance in itself about the bona-fides of a university.”

Consequently, the advisory said, “Before seeking admission in a university, students are advised to take into account several other factors,” and outlined three criteria in particular, which were:

(1)Does the university function from a campus or merely maintains a website and has administrative premises only? If not, such universities are not to be regarded as a bona-fide educational institution and admission into such universities should be avoided.  

(2) Does the university have a faculty and regular instructors/educators? If not, admissions to such universities should be avoided. It may be noted that such universities typically employ only administrative staff and their websites have no information in respect of faculty.

(3) Does the university have a proper curriculum, hold regular classes and actively implement academic or educational activity? If not, admissions to such universities may be avoided. Students admitted to such universities, even if in possession of regular student visa may be tried for violation of visa norms and subjected to detention and subsequent deportation from the U.S.

The embassy said, “This advisory is not exhaustive and intended only to provide general guidance to the students in taking the right decision while seeking admission in U.S.universities.”

At the time of the arrests of the Indian students and eight Indian recruiters, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the investigation had begun in 2015, and HSI agents had been operating the fake school since 2017, and when the indictments were unsealed in January, it said the eight recruiters had enrolled hundreds of foreign nationals as students at the university.

These eight recruiters have been indicted for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

On Feb.4. The eight recruiters—indicted for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan-- pleaded "not guilty" before a federal court in Michigan.

They had been arrested in January in Detroit, Florida and Virginia in a nationwide ICE sting during which time ICE also detained some 130 students, out of which 129 were Indians.

Although the students’ lawyers charged ICE and other U.S. law enforcement on entrapping them, the Trump administration in a strong reaction, accused the students of being cognizant that “they were committing a crime” when they enrolled at the fake university.

The U.S. State Department--obviously in response to a Government of India demarche to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi protesting the way the students were entrapped--on Feb. 4, put out a statement, saying, “All participants in this scheme knew that the University of Farmington had no instructors or classes (neither online nor in-person) and were aware they were committing a crime in an attempt to fraudulently remain in the United States.”

India’s Ministry of External Affairs in its demarche had argued that the students “have been duped into enrolling in the ‘University’ (and) should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them.”

Although the State Department, harshly implied that the students were not innocents who were ignorant but were fully aware that they were committing a crime, it however, also tried to soften its statement by stating that these arrests were an “unfortunate aberration” in an otherwise “proud history” of U.S.-India educational exchanges.

It said, "More than a million international students' study at U.S. institutions each year, including approximately 196,000 Indian students last year. Instances of fraud schemes are rare, unfortunate aberrations in the proud history of educational exchange between the United States and India.”

"International students are a valuable asset to our universities and our economy and enrich our communities through sharing their diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences," it added, and bemoaned "It is unfortunate that some student recruiters and individuals seek to use the international student program to foster illegal immigration status in the United States.”

But earlier, the U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who had brought forth the indictments, said, “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.”

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