WASHINGTON, D.C.—A bipartisan group of four U.S. lawmakers, led by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D.-Ill.) have fired off a missive to the Kirstjen Nielson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Ronald Vitiello, Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), seeking details of the sting operation that nabbed at least 129 Indian students enrolled in a fake university set up by ICE, for alleged immigration fraud.
In their letter on Feb. 6, the lawmakers said, “We write to you today with concerns surrounding the recent undercover operation,” conducted by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), “in which HIS special agents operated a fake university (“University of Farmington”) designed to target recruiters and foreign students believed to be engaged in immigration fraud.”
Krishnamoorthi and Reps. Thomas Suozzi (D.-N.Y.), Rob Woodall (R.-Ga.) and Brenda Lawrence (D.-Mich.), whose district includes most of Eastern Detroit, where the fake ‘University of Farmington,’ was said to be based, urged DHS and ICE “to ensure the detained students are treated properly and afforded all rights provided to them under the law, including access to an attorney and release on bond, if they are eligible.”
“We further urge DHS and ICE to share full details and regular updates regarding the Indian students with the Embassy and Consulates of India, and to facilitate consular access for the detainees,” they wrote.
According to ICE, the investigation began in 2015, and HSI agents have been operating the fake school since 2017, and as per the indictments unsealed last month, eight individuals served as recruiters for the school, enrolling 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—all Indians-- pleaded "not guilty" before a federal court in Michigan.
They were arrested last month 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.
One of them Phanideep Karnati, 35, who is on a H-1B visa and lives in Louisville, Kentucky was released on a bond of $10,000 the same day.
The other seven -- Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Mich., Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpepper, Mich., Prem Rampeesa, 26,of Charlotte, North Carolina, Santosh Sama, 28, of Freemont, California, Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta, Georgia, and Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas, Texas, consented to their continued detention before a judge in the Eastern District of Michigan, where they were produced along with Karnati after their arrest.
If found guilty, each of them could serve a term of five years imprisonment.
In their letter, the four U.S. lawmakers informed Nielson and Vitiello that “the Indian-American community and Indian Consulate have expressed concerns regarding the treatment of these detained foreign nationals.”
They also pointed out that “India is an important strategic partner and friend to the United States,” and noted, “In 2017, Indian students comprised 17.3 per cent of all international students in the country, numbering over 186,000.”
Thus, Krishnamoorthi and the other lawmakers argued, “These students are a vital pillar of the people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, and they come to the U.S. on grounds of merit.”
"In the spirit of continuing cooperation on educational exchange programs, which benefit both countries economically and culturally, we ask that you ensure the students involved in this case are treated fairly, humanely, and in accordance with due process,” they reiterated.
The lawmakers letter was sent two days after the Trump administration accused the students of being cognizant that “they were committing a crime” when they enrolled at the fake university, although the students’ lawyers charged ICE and other U.S. law enforcement on entrapping them.
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, 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.”