After federal authorities arrested around a hundred immigrants, many from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh caught in a fake university sting operation, Telugu associations in the US began reaching out to help panicked students. As hundreds of Indians involved in the scam face arrest and potential deportation, the associations began hosting webinars and offering legal advice to beleaguered students.
The US Department of Homeland Security created a fake university by the name of University of Farmington in Michigan – with the aim of trapping immigration agents and illegal immigrants, who were extending their stay in America on the pretext of being students. Arrests were carried out by Homeland Security officials and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
According to some estimates, arrest warrants for 600 Farmington ‘students’ have been issued, many of whom are Indian citizens, and 100 of them have been picked up by the authorities so far. The Indian Consulate General in Chicago reported receiving the names of 29 Indians arrested in the case as of Thursday.
Telugu associations step in
As of possible arrests and deportations emerged, panic spread through Indian student communities in the United States. The American Telugu Association (ATA) opened up registration for a webinar titled 'University of Farmington ICE Issue : Effect on F-1 CPT Employment.' The ATA has also set up an emergency help team to aid those affected.
"As the news started trickling in about the arrest of Indian students, the friends of the affected students called ATA team for guidance and help. ATA team swung into action and has reached out to the friends of these students, advising and counselling them about the next course of action. ATA team has reached out to the Indian Ambassador Harshvardhan Shingla, and the Indian consulates in Washington DC and Atlanta. The Indian consulates are looking to reach out to the Department of Homeland Security," the association said.
In its webinar with immigration attorneys Ravi Mannam, Michael Sofo and Hemant Ramachandran from the law firm of Mannam & Associates LLC, the ATA guided and counselled the students to be “watchful with fake agents who promise illegal ways to stay in the USA with admissions in unaccredited colleges.”
Though the federal operation, dubbed ‘Paper Chase,’ only applies to immigrants who were pretending to be students at the fake Farmington University, thousands of Indian students who are legal immigrants on F1 visas or awaiting H-1B work permits bombarded the experts with questions on whether the scam affects their current status in the country.
The attorneys informed students on what constituted violation of immigration rules.
The lawyers also pointed out that in many cases, “students entered the country legally and in a law-abiding way. They had no predisposition to circumvent the procedure,” citing cases where the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was delaying the issuance of a H-1B visa, which may have forced students to enroll in one of these universities to extend their F1 (Student visa) status.
“Talk to immigration attorneys and be truthful to them,” the speakers at the webinar said.
In a statement, Jay Talluri, the executive vice-president of Telugu Association for North America (TANA) said, "It’s very disturbing to see these students arrested. I along with Raja Kasukurthi and Satish Palukuri met with Sandeep Chakravarthy (Indian Consulate General, New York), and requested to talk to the Indian Ambassador and act on it. Sandeep Chakravarthy received the memorandum submitted by TANA and promised to talk to the Indian Ambassador and take immediate action, and make a request to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) authorities.”
"He also promised to talk to all the appropriate people to take necessary actions,” Jay added, “I hope this problem will be resolved and students will get a chance to stay and apply for other universities.”
Meanwhile, the Telangana American Telugu Association also hosted a webinar on the subject. Speaking to TNM, a representative from the association stated that they were working with several officials to address the issue. Students whose F1 status is scheduled to expire have been advised to return to India by February 5.
Some associations have also been asking students to band together and meet their local senators in the United States, to take up the issue.
In Vijayawada, the Andhra Pradesh Non-Resident Telugu (APNRT) Society, the official platform of the state government, said it would extend help to arrested Telugu students through its 150 coordinators in the US. APNRT society president Ravikumar P. Vemuru, said that the students could contact the coordinators listed on the society website. They may also contact 24-hour helpline 08632340678.
He told reporters that the students should be seen as victims and not crime perpetrators, as the US Government is claiming. He advised the parents of the students not to worry. "They will be fine because there is no clear-cut intention to defraud the US government," he said.
He said barring eight brokers who were arrested the remaining 592 students will not suffer major damage. The maximum damage they may face is deportation if proved they were adopting illegal means to stay.
The University of Farmington was a fake university created in 2015 in an operation termed “Paper Chase” which was designed by Homeland Security agents to track down and arrest recruiters and others who were working to help foreign students stay in the country illegally.
The indictment by the federal grand jury stated that eight individuals were charged with conspiracy to help the students remain in the country illegally.
The recruiters were identified as Bharath Kakireddy (29) from Lake Mary, Florida; Aswanth Nune (26) from Atlanta; Suresh Reddy Kandala (31) from Culpeper, Virginia; Phanideep Karnati (35) from Louisville, Kentucky; Prem Kumar Rampeesa (26) from Charlotte, North Carolina; Santosh Reddy Sama (28) from Fremont, California; Avinash Thakkallapally (28) from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Naveen Prathipati (29) from Dallas. They collectively received $250,000 in cash and kickbacks to find students to attend the university, according to prosecutors, the Detroit News reported.
Many arrests also reportedly took place in Houston, Charlotte in North Carolina, Atlanta and St Louis. The DHS had so far provided the consulate with the names of 29 arrested persons, Head of Chancery at the Consulate General in Chicago said.
“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 a result of foreign citizens falsely asserting that they were enrolled as full-time students in an approved educational program and that they were making normal progress toward completion of the course of study," the indictment reportedly states.
With inputs from Nimeshika Jayachandran.