A total of some 250 mostly Indian students at a phony university in metro Detroit that was created by the Department of Homeland Security as part of a sting operation to catch students for alleged violation of immigration laws, have been arrested since January this year.
The arrests have been made by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities in the wake of the sting operation in the fake Farmington university in January this year that sought to entice international students seeking to obtain student visas fraudulently to attend the school. The university marketed itself as offering graduate programs in technology and computer studies.
Rahul Reddy, a Texas attorney who represented some of the arrested Farmington students’ cases in immigration courts earlier this year, told this correspondent that almost all of these students arrested since early this year have been from India. Most of them had been lured into a trap and were preyed upon by U.S. officials.
Reddy, however clarified, that the sting operation by the immigration authorities was conducted only in January this year at Farmington and is no longer continuing.
“All the arrests were made by authorities in January with some people taken into custody in February and maybe a few in March. I have not personally come across any recent detention of students on this Farmington case. As far as I know there has been no detention recently, not at least in the past three or four months,” Reddy, Partner & Attorney at Law at Houston-based Reddy & Neumann P.C., told India Abroad.
Media reports last week said about 90 additional foreign students of a fake university in metro Detroit created by the Department of Homeland Security have been arrested in recent months bringing the total to 250 students since January on immigration violations. The reports did not say when the additional 90 students were arrested.
“There is a discrepancy in the figures in the sense that the newspaper reports might have recently gotten updated figures from authorities about the number of arrests, but as far as I know there has been no fresh arrests in this case at least in the past 3 or four months,” Reddy said.
Most of these students in detention have been deported, except some who are contesting their removals. One student has been allowed to stay, according to news reports, after being granted lawful permanent resident status by an immigration judge.
Reddy said seven of the eight recruiters, all of them Indians who worked on a commission basis for the immigration authorities to help enroll students for the phony university, have pleaded guilty after being criminally charged with seeking to enroll students.
News Reports in Detroit Free Press and other media outlets said quoting Detroit ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls that the recruiters sentenced between 12 and 18 months in prison so far include Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Florida; Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Virginia; Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, California; Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta, and Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas.
To a question, Reddy explained that according to court records more than $200,000 had been paid by immigration authorities to these eight people to recruit students, although these people did not know that this was an undercover operation.
“They knew that this was a fraud or phony university, but they went ahead and helped enroll students for monetary gain and that is how they got into trouble,” Reddy said.
The students had arrived legally in the U.S. on student visas, but since the University of Farmington was later revealed to be a creation of federal agents, they lost their immigration status after it was shut down in January. The school was staffed with undercover agents posing as university officials.
Although this was not the first time that a fake university has been set up by immigration authorities to catch fraud, attorneys for the affected students in Farmington say that these operations are entrapment, designed to trick unknowing international students into paying thousands of dollars to a university while having no way of knowing that their actions are illegal.
Arrests and sting operations had been carried out in 2016 in New Jersey to bust student visa scams that also involved some students and recruiters from India and also similar crackdown on other educational institutions in earlier years.
Several lawmakers took to social media last week to express outrage at the operation, including 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. “This is cruel and appalling. These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them,” Warren tweeted.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14th District) censured lawmakers who greenlit the release of billions in taxpayer dollars to both ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this year, saying that taxpayer dollars had been used to pay for questionable operations like the Farmington sting.
“I saw members voting YES [without] even a summary of the bill. Nobody cared then how we’d pay for it,” the freshman congresswoman from New York said. “Now ICE is setting up fake universities to trap students. Yet we were called radical for opposing it,” she tweeted.
The sting operation at Farmington aimed at busting alleged visa fraud by students, who came here legally on F-1 visas for studies in STEM-related fields, but later committed alleged fraud when their F-1 visas were about to expire and they enrolled in a second master’s course that would give them a chance to continue to live legally on student visas as they did not have H1-B guest workers visa.
In most cases this is believed to be a common practice for those who have failed to land an H1-B sponsor during or after Optional Practical Training, which is a temporary authorization to students to work in related fields of their study for a period of 12 months during or after completing the degree program.
While both Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program and Optional Practical Training (OPT) program temporarily allow international students with an F-1 visa to gain practical experience directly related to their major through employment, the major difference between OPT and CPT are the period for which one is eligible for work and the type of work allowed.
While OPT can be completed before or after graduation, CPT must be completed before graduation. Another significant difference is that CPT is required for one’s major and if it not one must receive course credit whereas for OPT one does not have to earn course credit.
Early this year, the brother of a detained Indian student told India Abroad how everybody was taken by surprise by the undercover operation at Farmington. “My brother, who completed his master’s from Northwestern Polytechnic University in California and was working in North Carolina under OPT, got himself enrolled in Farmington University in 2018 for a second master’s because all of a sudden last year the Freemont-based private school, from where he did his first graduate degree, lost its federal accreditation leaving him no option but to pursue a second master’s.
“I just don’t know what happened now all of a sudden at this Farmington school,” a distraught Utah-based Indian-American IT worker of Telugu origin, who by his admission has been in the U.S. for eight years, told this correspondent without identifying him by his name.
Some attorneys told this correspondent earlier that the practice of enrolling in a second master’s course to get a chance to continue to live legally through an OPT is not in violation of law. Despite such opinions, however, the Indian and other students in Farmington came under the ICE dragnet for alleged violation of immigration law although they came to the U.S. legally.
According to a Newsweek report, Bill Hing, general counsel at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco, said he is not surprised at the arrests. “The one thing that (President Donald) Trump did when he came in is that he pretty much unleashed local ICE directors to do whatever they want.”
To a question if the Farmington operation rises to the level of entrapment, Hing said he believed the government may be in trouble, adding that an entrapment is when people are not normally inclined to do something criminal but do so when they're presented with something that's not legally proper by law enforcement.
“I do think [the students] have a good argument that they would never have done this if they knew that what they were about to enter into was something fraudulent. I think that's going to be a problem for the government,” Hing was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile Reddy said in the interview that there are about 100K students who are currently going to universities of dubious distinction in the U.S. “We call these universities CPT universities,” Reddy said, alluding to Curricular Practical Training that gives international students chance to work part-time while training.
Reddy said two people have been deported recently for going to these kind of universities that include at least one each in Kentucky and Tennessee where classes start every two weeks.
“These are the kind of shady universities where students, many of whom are from India are going where one has to attend classes for just six days a year and do the rest of the course work online. In these institutions students are given a work permit under CPT as soon as they join college. Recently, the USCIS have questioned the status of some of these students and requested for further evidence (RFE) to establish the beneficiaries have been maintaining status,” Reddy said.
“Obviously, these universities, which do not seem to be fake institutions, and which are much bigger than Farmington, are not following the law. I fear someday many such students will eventually meet with the same kind of fate that these Farmington University students had to meet,” Reddy said, adding that he wants to request the USCIS and ICE to derecognize and shut down these type of universities.
“What is happening these days with many of our Indian students is that they would transfer, for example from a good university like Houston or Texas, to one of these ‘CPT mills’ so they can get a work permit, even if for part-time jobs showing their papers as a genuine international student.”
According to the Open Doors 2019 report with 202,014 students, India was the second highest source of international students in the U.S. this year after China that sent the largest number of international students.
The total number of international students, 1,095,299, recorded a 0.05 percent increase over last year. The report said policy changes that allow STEM students to remain in the U.S. on Optional Practical Training opportunities for 36 months after the completion of their studies likely continues to drive the increase in students on OPT programs, which increased by 9.6 percent to 223,085.
New York-based Immigration attorney Prasanthi Reddy, who was engaged by the American Telugu Association early this year to respond to the queries of the detained Farmington students, says lack of availability of adequate number of H1 visas encourages students to find an alternative to remain in the U.S. legally by enrolling in another master’s program.
“Both educational institutions and the “so called recruiters ” take advantage of the desperation of the students and exploit them in many ways, including financially and we see such cases coming to light from time to time,” Reddy told this correspondent earlier referring to the Farmington arrests.