The ICEmen Cometh: Detaining students from India could impact future enrollment

International students’ enthusiasm for studying in American institutions of higher learning may have somewhat dampened last week after scores of them, all natives of India, were taken into detention on Jan. 31 for alleged violation of study visa rules.

There was a sense of panic among the student community as the detained Indians faced the possibility of being deported once their cases are heard by courts.

The U.S. State Department on Feb. 4 took note of the detentions, seemingly after the Indian government’s démarche to Washington requesting the students’ release.

During his 2016 campaign, then presidential hopeful Donald Trump said people such as Indians studying in American educational institutions should not be thrown out because the country needs “smart people” like them. Whether Trump actually meant that or not, the future of some of these smart people from India seemed now to be in peril after the undercover operation by ICE agents to catch dozens of students from India for alleged violation of immigration laws.

The sting operation aimed at busting visa fraud by the 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, but they did not have H1-B guest workers visa.

To get out of the morass and to ensure their uninterrupted stay in the U.S. legally, some, if not all of these students, applied to enroll for a second master’s degree that would give them a chance to continue to live legally on student visas.

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. Some attorneys said the practice is not in violation of law. Experts say the temporary work authorization can extend up to 24 months if the student has a master’s in STEM fields.

When students don’t get a work permit even on the second year of their OPT because the H1-B visas are oversubscribed every year, they “become desperate” about how to remain in the U.S. legally. That is when they explore the last option— enrolling for a second master’s to continue living in the U.S. on F1.

Last month, immigration authorities took into custody scores of such Indian students who enrolled without knowing in a bogus university called Farmington University, which was actually set up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Metro Detroit in Michigan. The aim, according to authorities, was to get students believed to be gaming the system in order to remain in the U.S., into the dragnet of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigration authorities arrested eight students from India, who worked as recruiters at the “fake” university in Metro Detroit and indicted them criminally with conspiracy to commit visa fraud to “facilitate hundreds of foreign nationals in illegally remaining and working in the U.S,” by actively recruiting them to enroll into the university, according to news reports.

The authorities put another 129 Indians, most of them from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh who were also enrolled in the same university, in detention. The Department of Homeland Security said in court documents that it set up the Farmington University with undercover agents as staff to target foreign students staying in the U.S.allegedly without proper authorization.

A few students at the university smelt something was not right about the school as classes were not being held regularly and the school’s overall functioning seemed a little unusual. Some of the students told about their impression from detention centers to an immigration attorney after they were taken into custody.

“But nobody said anything, first because the school was listed on ICE website and was approved by Student and Exchange Visitor Program and secondly, the enrolment fees were relatively inexpensive. So, most of them decided to go “with the flow, because it would give them an opportunity to extend their visas after a second master’s allowing them 24 months of OPT,” Prasanthi Reddy, an immigration attorney in New York, who responded to the queries of many of the detained Telugu students, told India Abroad.

“Except for the eight who were arrested and criminally indicted, the rest of them spread over different states across the U.S., were either detained or were served with summons to appear before court for alleged immigration fraud.

The State Department noted that 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. All participants in this scheme knew that the University of Farmington had no instructors or classes (neither on-line nor in-person) and were aware they were committing a crime in an attempt to fraudulently remain in the United States,” the department said in a statement.

The brother of a detained student told India Abroad how everybody concerned was taken by surprise by the undercover operation. “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 last year for a second master’s because all of a sudden last year the Fremont-based private school, from where he did his fist 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,” the distraught Utah-based Indian-American IT worker of Telugu origin, who by his admission has been in the U.S. for eight years, told India Abroad, as he described the plight of his brother, whom he did not want to identify by name.

“I read reports that this Farmington school was not a university, but a fake institution set up by the Homeland security. I am shocked,” he said, requesting anonymity. He added that his brother is at the detention center in Georgia along with about two dozen other Indians from different states.

The little-known Northwestern Polytechnic, his brother’s school in California, which lost its accreditation, was allegedly a “visa mill” that ranked first among all colleges of its type in the number of foreign students receiving “optional practical training” work permits, with 11,700 during a 12-year period.

The Mercury News that reported the “visa mill” story in a May 2018 report quoting an analysis by Pew Research, said the school was slapped with a warning by its accrediting agency last year.

The Farmington incident last month brought to the fore the issue of student visa abuse that made newspaper headlines from time to time earlier.

The purpose of last month’s sting operation was to lure students seeking to continue their stay in the U.S. through enrolment for a second master’s at a school like Farmington, although they did not know it was a fake institution. The authorities presumably had information relating to the student visa scams, but the students did not know that the ‘fake’ university was actually being run by HSI special agents and was an undercover operation.

The Detroit News, which first broke the story, said ICE made the arrests in the early morning hours of Jan. 31. The arrests took place across the U.S., including in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, Michigan, California, Louisiana, North Carolina, and St. Louis. Some of the arrests came at their homes early in the morning before dawn.

The arrests and the sting operation were reminiscent of a similar operation in 2016 in New Jersey when immigration authorities set up a fake educational institution to bust student visa scams that also involved some students and recruiters from India. Even before the New Jersey operation, there had been crackdowns on other educational institutions in earlier years.

In the New Jersey case, 21 brokers, recruiters, and employers from across the U.S., who allegedly conspired with more than 1,000 foreign nationals to fraudulently maintain student visas and obtain foreign worker visas through a “pay to stay” to the fake New Jersey college, were arrested.

The prosecutors alleged that time that a person named Tejesh Kodali, a U.S. permanent resident from India, who along with his co-conspirators, “fraudulently maintained” and attempted to obtain through his front companies 37 student visas and work authorizations.

In another case in 2012, immigration authorities served Sunnyvale-based Herguan University, a private institution, with a ‘Notice of Intent to Withdraw’ accreditation and to rescind the status of 600 students, mostly of Indian origin, who were declared “out of status” for alleged irregularities.

It also arrested Jerry Wang, the chief executive officer of the Herguan University and University of East-West Medicine, at his home in Santa Clara on charges of visa fraud. At that time, Ashok Babu Kholla of Telugu Association of North America, took up the cause of the Indian students in the institutions.

Referring to the Farmington case last week, United States Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement quoted in the media that while international students can be a valuable asset to the country, “as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused.”

What Lies at the Root Of the Student Visa Problem?

People like immigration attorney Reddy, engaged by the American Telugu Association to respond to the queries of the detained students through conference calls last week, said one of the main reasons is the lack of availability of adequate number of H1-B visas that encouraged students to find an alternative to remain in the U.S. legally by enrolling in another master’s.

“Both educational institutions and the “so called recruiters here” 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.

In the wake of the visa fraud at Farmington incident, Atlanta-based vernacular journalist and founder-director of the Indo-American Student Council Kumar Annavarapu, who has been crusading against “one-room” universities in the U.S. claimed in a report in the Hindu newspaper of India last week that many of the students, who got overseas scholarships from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana governments, had fallen prey to racketeers.

He claimed the agents got them the visas and to get admission into schools without TOEFL or GRE. He told the paper that it was not entirely the fault of students, and that the state government, which was making investments by way of providing some financial help to such students, should ensure that they get into the right universities.

An indication of the growing interest of Telugu students to come to U.S. is a 2015 report in the same newspaper which noted that the highest number of student visas were issued at the U.S. consulate in Hyderabad; around 27,000 student visas were issued in the last one year, followed by Mumbai (25,000) Chennai (18,500), Delhi (11,000) and Calcutta (3,700).

Parmesh Bheemreddy, president of the American Telugu Association, admitted that an increasing number of students from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, especially science and engineering students, have been coming for higher education to the U.S., and also for employment since the Y2K bug issue of 2000, known as millennium bug,

Bheemreddy said with more than 200 engineering colleges set up in the combined Telangana region in the past two decades or so, thousands of engineering graduates are being churned out every year. Many of these students, who are seeking jobs, have been coming to the U.S.

“The mindset of Telugus has undergone change since former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao ushered in economic liberalization and subsequently thanks to people like chief minister Chandrababu Naidu,” Bheemreddy said. He added that Naidu has put emphasis on science and technology education and all of these factors helped Hyderabad become a center of excellence in IT and engineering.

Bheemreddy said the combined effect of improvement in educational facilities and encouragement for education has raised the aspirational level of people who want to send their children to America for higher education. “That is how you see so many Telugu-speaking people in the U.S., a reflection of the trend in the society,” Bheemreddy said.

“Once students finish their master’s in the U.S.,they eagerly wait for a job, but with the paucity of H1-B visas, not everybody gets lucky and that is why they apply for a second masters, so they do not become illegal,” he said.

But Bheemreddy did not agree with reports alleging that some people come here without cracking tests like GRE or TOEFL or that middlemen or agents have any role in getting students to the U.S. “Even when I was in India, there would be representatives from American campuses coming there to sell their colleges to Indian students. That is a very common practice. The real important issue is for students to verify information online about the universities and campuses and their reputations,” Bheemreddy said.

Prasad Thotakura, president of the Dallas-based Indian American Friendship Council and an active member of the Indian-American community, said he has in the past written on his website about the need for Telugu students to check about the schools and their bona fides before buying plane tickets to America to avoid problems like an institution losing its accreditation suddenly, or a case like Farmington, although it was set up to catch visa violators.

Also, he pointed out, some students may be actually ignorant about how things work in the U.S. “Not all of the students are equally competent or technically qualified, but most of them have ‘bogus dollar’ dreams,” Thotakura told this correspondent.

In the wake of the arrests of the Indian nationals last month, India issued a démarche to the U.S. asking Washington to release at the earliest Indian students detained in connection with their enrollment in the fake university and not to deport them against their will.

“We underlined that students, who may have been duped into enrolling in the ‘university’, should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them. We have urged the U.S. side to share full details and regular updates of the students with the government, to release them from detention at the earliest and not to resort to deportation against their will,” an IANS news agency report quoting an MEA press release, said.

The Indian Embassy in Washington also opened a round-the-clock helpline for assistance and queries related to detention of Indian students by the U.S. authorities. “A démarche was made to the Embassy of the United States in New Delhi by the Ministry of External Affairs. Our concern over the dignity and well-being of the detained students and the need for immediate consular access for Indian officials to the detainees was reiterated,” it said.

In the U.S., some wondered if the annual international student enrolment in American schools, which has traditionally been topped by India, would be affected as the fallout from the government’s Jan. 31 sting operation grows.

Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of global engagement and research at Studyportals, told the PIE News that there were concerns about using such methods to catch criminals as many international students are still in the process of applying to universities.

Reddy agreed.

She said “entrapment” of students, as has been the case in Farmington, are usually used in criminal cases and in the Farmington case, the students have mostly been charged only with immigration violations .

“A negative information which suggests that U.S. government is trying to use international students as a bait will hurt the confidence of students and families,” Choudaha warned, according to PIE.

“The aspirations for studying in the U.S. remains strong, however, the barriers of immigration keep getting higher which may be prompting some students to circumvent them,” Choudaha, a Research Associate at Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley said.

The State Department sought to allay concerns. “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,” it said.

“The U.S. government fully supports international education and is committed to facilitating legitimate student travel. International students are a valuable asset to our universities and our economy and enrich our communities through sharing their diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences,” the State Department said.

Reddy admitted that there was a sense of fear and panic among Indian students, especially those from Andhra Pradesh because nobody wants to be banned from entry to the U.S.

She said those who have been detained, and even those given Notice to Appear (NTA), seemingly have the fear that if they are produced in court, such an order banning their re-entry may be given by the judges. Reddy disclosed about the students anxiety based on her phone conversations with scores of students after the Farmington operation.

“Right now, you probably won’t get booking on any Hyderabad-bound flight from anywhere in the U.S. this week thanks to the sting operation and the panic it has created,” Reddy, told India abroad.

While the sting operation created a sudden panic among the Indian and other foreign students, a concern has been growing among international students since August last year when the USCIS issued a memo.

The memo said that student visa holders could be barred from re-entry to the U.S. for three to 10 years for unlawful presence, and the counting of such presence will begin accruing the day after a student stops pursuing a course of study.

This fear is now real among the Indian students detained because their presence can be now be construed as unlawful in view of the fact they are no longer in schools.

Reddy said a clearer picture about the students and their future will probably emerge within a few weeks.

Under the previous policy, unlawful presence began accruing the day after the DHS issued a formal finding of a status violation in the course of adjudicating a request for another immigration benefit or the day after a judge issued an order of deportation.

Four colleges, including the New School in New York, filed a lawsuit last year against that USCIS policy that they said will “fundamentally disrupt” the lives of international students and exchange scholars who are living in the U.S. on F, J and M visas.

“The immigration system is beset with processing delays, and many of these status determinations are made when an individual is applying for new immigration benefits. Thus, the new policy’s use of a backdated unlawful presence clock will render tens of thousands of F, J, and M visa holders subject to three- and ten-year reentry bars without any opportunity to cure,” according to the 2018 lawsuit.

Advocates for international students expressed concern over the new policy saying that students would be subject to a disproportionately harsh penalty — a three -or 10-year bar on re-entry — even for minor or inadvertent status violations .

“Combined with the sting operation, this previous memo that perhaps have acted up their fears leading to a rush for departure for India because if the visa violation charges are minor and they are not barred from entering the U.S., they can perhaps apply again for fresh visa and can come back,” Prasanthi Reddy said.

Obviously, the students want to avoid deportation which may give them a chance to lawfully come back to the U.S. as international students.

According to the latest 2018 Open Doors report published in November, while overall numbers of international students increased, new student enrollments fell by 6.6 percent in 2017/18, corroborating findings from the 2017 fall enrollment survey and continuing a slowing or downward trend first observed in the 2015/16 academic year.

Open Door said the current gains in the total number of international students are due primarily to increased participation in the OPT program, which allows international students to practice their skills in the United States for up to 12 months during or after they complete their academic programs, or up to 36 months for students who have earned a degree in STEM fields.

Last month, talking in the context of Indo-U.S. business and trade partnerships, India’s new ambassador to the U.S. Harsh Vardhan Shringla mentioned during a U.S.-India Business Council reception in his honor how Indian students contribute to the U.S. economy.

“If you look at the fact that America —t o us who look at it from the outside — seems to be the place that attracts the best talent, and we are very happy to see that there are as many as 227,000 Indian students who study in the United States, who cumulatively contribute $6.5 billion to the academic sector in the United States,” Shringla said.

The Open Door report noted OPT participation grew by 15.8 percent in 2017/18 and together with China, students from India accounted for more than half or 51.1 percent of all international students.

(Aziz Haniffa from Washington, D.C. also contributed to the story)

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