All that 26-year-old Ganesh* knows is that he wants to go home. He wants to leave behind his life in the United States and return to his parents in Andhra Pradesh. The rest, he says, he can figure out once getting there. “All of our American dreams have collapsed because of this,” he told TNM.
On January 30, hundreds of foreign students were targeted in a massive operation by the US Department of Homeland Security. US officials created the fake University of Farmington in Michigan to target students, many of whom wanted to illegally stay in the country. More than a hundred students were detained, including Ganesh, who was kept in a detention centre from January 30 to February 5.
Now released on bail, Ganesh has been staying at a friend’s house in a location he did not wish to disclose. Speaking to TNM, he recounted the nightmare that has crushed his hopes of a future in the United States, and has him longing to return to India.
‘I thought it was some prank at first’
For a few weeks, Ganesh had heard rumours that police were deporting students back to India. “But there was no solid evidence to confirm this,” he says. “Then the government shutdown occurred and we weren’t able to get any information. Then, again on the morning of January 30, at 6.30am (across several states), officials began checking students.”
Officials from the Homeland Department of Security contacted him via a friend. “They called three times. I thought it was some prank at first.” The authorities had visited his friend’s address, who then called Ganesh and told him that they were looking for him.
As news of the Farmington operation broke, Indian students in the US made panicked calls to lawyers and immigration experts, but Ganesh says he tried to remain calm. Staying composed, he collected his paperwork showing his immigration status in the US and informed a few other students of the situation. “Some of them booked tickets to India as soon as I told them and were let off by the officials when apprehended,” he says.
He, however, was not so fortunate. Ganesh, along with 10 other students, were detained at a government facility. He spent a week at the detention centre, and was told by officials that he had been taken into custody because the expiration of his Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an official document required by foreign students studying in the country and a system used by Homeland Security to track those students.
Ganesh tells TNM that when a student’s SEVIS is expiring, they are typically informed by the university, but Ganesh received no such call. Furthermore, students are given 2 months after the expiry period to leave the country (and can return after that if they choose to, but first they must exit the country).
It is important to note that many of the students who were caught in the crossfire were not staying in the country illegally. Most are ‘highly skilled workers’ who were eligible for H-1B visas, explains Yash Bodduluri, chairperson of the TANA youthwing. “There’s a backlog, due to the system here, and that has resulted in millions of those eligible for H-1Bs and greencards to be stuck in a ‘no man's land.’ So yes, they are legally here, and are awaiting the processing of the paperwork and are looking for ways to survive in the meantime.” On Monday, Yash and other activists protested in front of the White House in Washington DC regarding the issue of backlogs.
Protestors in front of White House
Telugu associations step in
Stuck in the detention centre, Ganesh was told that they would have to wait until the case appeared before a judge, which could take months. “I had all my documentation paperwork with me, but was unable to pass it onto friends on the outside who needed the papers in order to even get me bail,” he says.
Only after Telugu associations like TANA and ATA stepped in, attorneys were made accessible to the students. “Luckily after this, the following Monday the Indian Embassy reacted, and officials came to our centre, with a lawyer and I talked to them. I told them that I just want to leave the country and don’t want to stay here anymore. Hearing this, they told me and others wanting to return to request the ICE officers [for release].”
Ganesh believes he was released because he had surrendered himself to ICE officers, rather than be caught, he says. “I think I was the only one who actually spoke to the ICE officer. I told them that I just wanted to leave. I can’t waste my life fighting this here. I can go back and continue my studies in India. He told me that I could leave, that they have no problem with me leaving or staying. But I didn’t think twice and said I wanted to leave.”
After his friends finally managed to procure his documents through the attorney, they were able to arrange for his bail. “It was with their help that a few people like me are even out,” he says.
He was let out of the facility on February 5, but Ganesh’s nerve-wracking ordeal was far from over. “All my paperwork was returned to me except for my passport,” he says. He was told to visit the immigration office to sort this out, but at the time of writing, he had not yet visited the office. “It’s been really cold the past two days, so I haven’t been able to go. Tomorrow I will go and see what they have to say.” If this doesn’t work out, his other option is to request for emergency travel documents from the Indian Embassy.
As Ganesh wades through the complexities of the US immigration system, he thinks about his parents on the other side of the world, anxiously hoping for his return. “They just want me home now,” he says. “What else more?”