Washington, January 31, 2019 —
They allegedly assisted foreign ‘students’ in fraudulently obtaining immigration documents from the varsity and facilitated the creation of false student records.
At least eight people – all either Indian citizens or of Indian origin – have been arrested across cities in the U.S. in connection with visa fraud charges according to the US District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, a statement from the office of U.S. Attorney for the District, Matthew Schneider, said. Six arrests were made in Detroit, one in Florida and one in Virginia.
In addition to the eight, an unspecified number of Indian students have been detained by the Department of Homeland Security in connection with the above case. The indictments unsealed on Wednesday charged the eight individuals, “a group of foreign citizens”, with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbour aliens for profit.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents had posed as owners and employees of the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, approximately between June 2017 and January 2019 as part of an undercover operation to uncover immigration fraud, the indictment says. Students would pay to enrol in the University, giving the appearance that they were in approved educational programmes and making normal progress towards getting a degree. However, the University neither had faculty nor any classes, the indictment says, and the students were aware of this. The “pay to stay” scheme allowed them to maintain their student visa (F-1) status and obtain work permits as part of the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) option open to qualified F-1 visa students.
One of the eight defendants, an Aswanth ( aka Ashwanth) Nune, is alleged to have made in excess of $25,000 via this scheme , and assisted at least 18 other foreign citizens. Mr. Nune, the charges go, enlisted foreign citizens at the university in return for cash, kickbacks, “scholarships” and course credit. Mr. Nune also allegedly helped foreign citizens maintain their student visa status and obtain employment authorisation in the U.S.
The other seven individuals arrested are Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, FL, Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Virginia, Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, Kentucky, Prem Rampeesa, 26, of Charlotte, North Carolina, Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, California, Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta, Georgia and Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas, Texas. If convicted, they could be jailed for up to five years.
“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 programme can also be exploited and abused,” Mr Schneider said in a statement.
About 600 facilitated for illegal stay
The defendants helped at least 600 foreign citizens as per one of the indictments, The Detroit Free Press reported. This means the number of “students” who will eventually be detained could run into the hundreds, and it is likely the majority of them are Indian citizens. At least 36 arrests of individuals posing as students were confirmed as per a diplomatic source.
The Indian Embassy in Washington and Indian Consulates across the country have been in touch with the Indian community and Indian student associations in the U.S. as well as U.S. authorities to provide those detained with consular assistance.
One of the “students” arrested, Babu (full name withheld on request) was taken away at dawn by DHS agents who knocked on his door at about 6.00 AM on Wednesday, Karthik (full name withheld upon request) , an engineer who shares a flat with Babu and a third female house-mate.T he agents asked Babu where he was studying, what he was studying and whether he was taking online classes. Babu answered the last question in the affirmative but could not name any professors.
Babu spoke with Karthik in the afternoon on Wednesday and asked Karthik to contact a non-profit that could help him get an attorney. The number of the non-profit was provided to Babu by the authorities. Babu, who sounded scared and “pretty low” according to Karthik, could not identify where he had been detained. Karthik has also been in touch with the Indian Embassy in Washington.
The University of Farmington has a website with details of its history, admissions and fees – which appear noticeably low. Graduate tuition per quarter is an estimated $2,500 or $10,000 per year compared to some $36,000 per year tuition at Michigan State for those who cannot claim state resident fees.
The defendants intended to help shield and hide their customers/ students from United States immigration authorities for money and collectively profited in excess of a quarter of a million dollars as a result of their scheme, the ICE 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 programme can also be exploited and abused, stated US Attorney Matthew Schneider.
According to the indictment, the university was being used by foreign citizens as a ‘pay to stay’ scheme which allowed these individuals to stay in the United States as full-time students in an “approved” educational programme.
Each of the foreign citizen who enrolled and made tuition payments to the university knew that they would not attend accrual classes, earn credits or make progress towards an actual degree in a particular field of study — a pay to stay scheme, the indictment said.
“Rather their intent was to fraudulently maintain their student visa status and to obtain work authorisation under the CPT programme, the indictment said, claiming that each student knew that the university programme was not approved by the Department of Homeland Security, was illegal and that discretion should be used when discussing the programme with others.
It is the second such case when the Department of Homeland Security has used a fake university to unearth a fake student visa racket. In 2016, ICE had arrested some 21 people for similar charges for a fake University of Northern New Jersey.