US Visa Racket: Detained ‘Students’ Knew What They Stepped Into, While All Eight Accused Plead “Not Guilty”
February 6th, 2019 / 12:16 PM
Image Credit: Punjabkesari (Representational)
Eight Indians were recently arrested for helping several students from India stay illegally in the US by getting them enrolled in a fake university. The eight accused, however, pleaded “not guilty” of the crime before a federal court in Michigan.
“It was all choreographed”
35-year-old Phanideep Karnati, one of the accused, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and is on a H-1B visa, was released on February 4 on a bond of USD 10,000. The others consented to their consented detention before a judge in Michigan. The seven others are Barath Kakireddy, Suresh Kandala, Prem Rampeesa, Santosh Sama, Avinash Thakkallapally, Aswanth Nune, and Naveen Prathipati, reported NDTV. According to John W Brusstar, attorney for Karanati, each of them pleaded “not guilty”.
Accusing the federal government of carrying out such a sting operation to entrap people, he said, “It was all choreographed”. Apart from Karnati, none of the seven Indians had hired an attorney. Due to his good track record, Karnati was released on bail. He had come to US about 10 years back. All eight of them might face imprisonment up to five years if convicted.
129 Indians out of 130 ‘students’ had been arrested by US authorities, and according to officials, more apprehensions can be expected. The arrested students will remain in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) until the case is concluded by the immigration courts. They have been marked for deportation, or placed in ‘removal proceedings’.
Many lawyers have argued that those enrolled in the fake university did not know about the scam and believed they were really getting enrolled in a legal university. When some of their courses lost accreditation, they switched to this university from wherever else they were previously studying. Some others were pursuing second masters under the B-1B programme, which grants advanced degree holders as 20,000 visas every year from US educational institutions, reported Hindustan Times.
However, it has been argued by prosecutors that the ‘students’ knew what they were stepping into. They were aware of the fact that the programme of the university was not government approved. They were also aware that they were not going to attend classes or make any academic progress, but rather intended to maintain the status of their student visa, remain in the country fraudulently and get authorization of work under the CPT (Curricular Practical Training).
Detained students are not being tortured
There were allegations that the arrested students have been packed in a single cell and are being physically tortured, but local Telugu organizations working with the students have rubbished it. They said that the students are, in fact, being taken care of. The groups are providing legal aid to the students and after visiting them, they claimed there was no possibility of anyone torturing them, reported The New Indian Express.
“They are placed in detention centers along with criminals so naturally there will that anxiety among students. There was an allegation that a female student was given beef but that because they do not have exclusive vegetarian food. But am sure they would have some vegetarian accompaniment with it. It is a detention center so it cant be conformable and this was one of the stray incidents,” said Mohan Nannapaneni, founder of Team Aid.
Several associations including Team Aid, TRS unit of USA and American Telugu Association are visiting the detention centre and trying to attach one attorney to each student. These associations have also urged parents of the students to not panic and spread false rumours about their children being unsafe.
The fee for lawyers is as high a $2,000, so it is difficult to hire lawyers to help students who are scattered over several different jails and detention centres across the US.
The Indian External affairs ministry and its US counterpart have been appreciated for handling the matter quickly and sensitively. Attorneys and diplomats are able to meet the detained students, and the Indian Embassy is getting the Consular access.
Previously, Undercover operation
Following authorities busting a “pay to stay” visa racket, many faced deportation from the US, including some people from India. Eight people were arrested for fraudulently allowing at least 600 immigrants to remain in the country illegally.
As many as eight foreigners were arrested by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, all of whom are Indian Nationals or Indian Americans. These people helped foreign nationals by getting them enrolled into a fake university in Farmington Hills in Metro Detroit so that they could continue to stay in the country illegally.
Special agents of the Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) operated the university as a part of an undercover operation without the conspirators’ knowledge, from a building in the Detroit area. They found that whatever information was available on the university’s website, specifically those related to admissions raised a lot of questions, reported The Economic Times. Several foreign students of the fake university were then detained by the ICE, and the deportation process began. A majority of those who were arrested and detained happened to be Indian nationals.
“Special agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arrested eight on criminal charges as part of an investigation into potential abuses of the US student visa system,” an ICE official had said.
“As part of this investigation, numerous foreign nationals face administrative immigration violations. Those individuals will be placed in removal proceedings, and ICE will seek to maintain them in its custody pending the outcome of those proceedings,” the ICE official had said.
According to an indictment which was unsealed in a local court, a group of foreign citizens from February 2017 to January 2019, conspired with each other to carry out the operation.
The fake university had no teachers, no staff and no classes were conducted, but was only part of a federal law enforcement operation that was taking place undercover, so that recruiters and entities engaged in immigration could be identified.
According to federal prosecutors, all the illegal documents that were seized were based entirely on false statements and false claims as these foreign students had no intention of attending school and obviously were not bona fide students.
It was noted by ICE that all participants in the scheme were aware that the school had no real classes and wanted to hide their customers from immigration authorities in order to earn money and as a result of the scheme, they profited in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. US Attorney Matthew Schneider said although foreign students can be an asset, the well-intended international student visa programme can also be possible to exploit. The indictment said that grossly exploiting US immigration laws, all the foreign students who enrolled and made payment for tuitions knew well that they did not want to attend classes or make any progress in academic life, but rather intended to fraudulently obtain work authorisation under the CPT (Curricular Practical Training) programme.
This incident is the second of its kinds after 21 people were arrested by the ICE in 2016 in connection with similar offences for a fake University of Northern New Jersey. To unearth this incident too, the Department of Homeland Security had used a fake university.
Social media chatter, mainly from platforms from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, indicated that ICE carried out raids in various US cities like Columbus Ohio; Houston in Texas, Atlanta in Georgia, St Louis in Missouri and New York and New Jersey.
In a statement by Reddy & Neumann group of an immigration attorney, it was said that multiple reports have come of multiple worksites being raided by ICE, which contained CPT students authorised by the University of Farmington, located in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
While students are supposed to be assets to a country, such exploitation and fraudulent operations reduce them to nothing more than liabilities.
Written by : Sumanti Sen
Edited by : Sromona Bhattacharyya