Sushma Swaraj And Team's "Top Priority, As Indian Students Arrested In US

Sushma Swaraj And Team

Sushma Swaraj And Team's "Top Priority, As Indian Students Arrested In US (representational image) 

New Delhi: The Minister of External affairs, Sushma Swaraj and her team are giving "top priority" to Indian students who have been arrested in the United States for enrolling themselves in a fake university, in what authorities are calling a "pay-to-stay" in America scheme. Out of the total 130, 129 people are from India.

While immigration attorneys said that the students were not aware that the university was operating illegally and illegitimately and criticised authorities for using "troubling" methods to trap them for profits, officials hold the students accountable, claiming that they "knowingly enrolled" themselves in the fake university to falsely maintain their student visa status to remain in the US.

A recent undercover operation was conducted by the US' Department of Homeland Security at the university in Detroit's Farmingtn Hills designed to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors who announced charges in the case.

US' Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 130 foreign students, including 129 Indians, for immigration violations, after the undercover operation. "The ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has administratively arrested 130 foreign nationals enrolled at the University of Farmington for civil immigration violations. Of the 130, 129 were Indian nationals," Khaalid H Walls, an ICE spokesperson, told news agency Press Trust of India.

"These individuals have been placed in removal proceedings, and ICE will seek to maintain them in its custody pending the outcome of those proceedings," he said.

The arrest were made by the ICE agents on Wednesday, the same day federal indictments were unsealed that charged eight people, all of whom are either Indians or Indian-Americans, in a visa fraud scheme. All eight were charged criminally for "conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit." The local media had reported that the arrest of 130 students were made only on civil immigration charges.

The arrests took place across the US, in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, Michigan, California, Louisiana, North Carolina and St Louis. The attorneys said that the students had immigrated legally to the US on student visas, but had allegedly transferred to the University of Farmington so that they could work.

According to the federal prosecutors,  the students were aware the university was not running a legitimate operation. However, the attorneys who have spoken with students or with family and friends of those arrested are pushing back against the government's claims.

An immigration attorney in Atlanta, Ravi Mannam said that the fake university "hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous master's programmes".

He said what the University of Farmington was offering - allowing students to work while enrolled - is not unusual. So the students may have thought it was an authorised university and work programme through a type of F-1 visa known as CPT (Curricular Practical Training).

Mr Mannam said some Indians had come to the US to enroll elsewhere, only to find that their intended programme had lost accreditation. So they enrolled at the University of Farmington, believing that they could apply their prior credits to the new programme, which seemed to emphasise work experience.

Other students had completed legitimate master's in the US but were waiting to be approved for a specialty work visa, so they enrolled in school as a stopgap measure. Mr Mannam said, "The government utilised very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution."

The Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, "We are aware about this incident. We are ascertaining more details (through) our embassy in Washington and different consulates in the US...We have also mobilised the Indian community organisations in the US to extend all possible support to the Indian students who are affected by this incident."

The  issue was placed as a "top priority" by the Ministry of External Affairs.

"The government of India, together with our mission in Washington and our consulates in the US are according the highest priority to the situation arising out of the detention of Indian students in the US," Mr Kumar said in response to queries.

"We have also placed a formal request for consular access, emphasising that the request may be taken as very high priority," Mr Kumar said.

In order to help those arrested 129 students, the Indian embassy in the US has also opened a 24/7 hotline. A nodal officer has been appointed to help the students in distress. The officer said that two numbers - (+1) 202-322-1190 and (+1) 202-340-2590 - would be manned by senior embassy officials round the clock=. The arrested students, their friends and family members can contact the embassy at the e-mail address: cons3.washington@mea.gov.in.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that foreign students are granted what are called "F" and "M" visas to study in the US and must maintain their legal status by enrolling in a varsity certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. Since the Farmington varsity did not offer courses, the students were using the programme as a way to work, said the ICE.

(Inputs from PTI)