In the early hours of January 30, officials from the US Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began conducting a massive ‘raid’ on foreign students as part of a sting operation that had been planned for months.
As news of the raids trickled in, Parmesh Bheemreddy, president of the American Telugu Association, started receiving multiple panicked phone calls. “So many people started calling. Friends and family and so many others who had heard of someone being taken in. People didn’t know what to do and were frantically searching for someone to help. That’s how we came to know about the issue,” he recounts.
Homeland Security officials had created a fake university in Michigan, by the name of University of Farmington, with the aim of trapping recruiters and immigrants believed to be illegally extending their stay in America on the pretext of being students. Hundreds of students had enrolled in the university.
The ‘raids’ began on January 30, as early as 4.30 am, throughout the country. Around 146 foreign students of Indian origin, a majority of whom hailed from Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, were detained by officials as a part of the undercover operation termed ‘Paper Chase.’
Within hours, officials from US-based Telugu organisations were overwhelmed with calls from those seeking help. Many such associations were quickly able to step in and help students.
“At first we were just shocked and trying to assess the situation. We had no idea where those who’d been detained were kept and we couldn’t track them,” says Parmesh, adding, “The biggest challenge for us was to figure out exactly how many students had been detained.”
Data from 2016 has shown that students from Andhra and Telangana account for a large chunk of Indians enrolled in US universities and institutes of higher learning. Telugu immigrants also make up a high percentage of students who work in the computer, software and IT sector after graduating from American universities. According to reports from 2018, it was estimated that nearly 17% of foreign students in the US hail from the Telugu speaking states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India.
As the associations undertook efforts to find out how many students were taken in, phone calls were also made simultaneously to immigration attorneys.
“We wanted to know what steps other students in a similar situation should take. What about those on an H-1B? Did anything need to be done? So, we ended up talking to several lawyers and we held seminars for students so that they’d know what to do,” Parmesh says.
A webinar titled 'University of Farmington ICE Issue : Effect on F-1 CPT Employment' was organised by ATA to inform students of their options and what to do if they were approached by officers.
“At the same time, we needed to figure out how many students were taken in, so we began collecting data. With the help of the consulates, we began visiting local detention centres. Attorneys helped us get through to the students and get the information of their local guardians, relatives or friends. Bail bonds were arranged for those who were able to get them. For some people we had ATA members themselves step in to help. A few other lawyers spoke to ICE officers to see what could be done,” says Parmesh.
ICE didn’t provide an exact number of those who had been raided and said around 146 students were detained. However, Parmesh says that number may have been inaccurate.
Providing legal support
It was only after associations like Telugu Association of North America (TANA) and ATA stepped in that students were able to meet attorneys, who gave them advice on what to do and what to expect.
Ganesh* a detainee who hails from Andhra Pradesh, told TNM that, “It was only after the attorneys came to the detention centre that I was able to get out. They spoke to the officials concerned and explained that I wanted to leave the country, voluntarily. I was advised to speak to ICE officers and said the same to them, and eventually I was permitted to leave on a bail bond.”
Sai Kiran*, who was also detained and is currently out on bail bond, stresses that the Telugu associations were able to quickly coordinate with local and federal government officials to ensure that at least a few students were released, even if on bail.
“Several of us have been advised by the attorneys provided by TANA and ATA members to just tell the judge that we want to leave, when our hearing date comes out,” he adds.
But the students, even if awaiting their hearing dates, might be stuck in the detention centres for a while.
“The deportation and removal process is an enormously laborious one. It might take months or even years. In order for this to move along much more quickly and efficiently, the Ministry of External Affairs in India needs to be putting more pressure on the American government,” Parmesh explains.
“The Indian Embassy here in the US as well as all our Indian diplomats have exhausted all their venues and resources. Unless MEA and Sushma Swaraj really step in, those 100-something students still being detained will have to wait for however long the US government’s system takes,” he adds.
Representing their case
The associations involved also immediately set up appointments with senior officials and politicians in the United States to present their cases.
While an ATA team met with Indian Ambassador Harshvardhan Shingla, Jay Talluri, the executive vice-president of TANA had said that they met Sandeep Chakravarthy, the Indian Consulate General in New York and submitted a memorandum to make a request to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) authorities.
Many also met with Elissa Slotkin, the US Representative for Michigan's 8th Congressional district. Slotkin issued a carefully-worded letter to the Indian American community in the US voicing support for the students.
“It is our understanding that these students were not aware that the university in which they had enrolled was fraudulent, and their only mistake was to misunderstand a foreign work-study program in their pursuit of higher education and career ambition. Indeed, they are not being criminally charged,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, associations in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have also swung into action.
Speaking to TNM, Dr Rajkumar, president of the Telangana NRI Parents Association, said, “We also received several distress calls from parents who were worried about their children. We immediately made calls to immigration attorneys from the two states who were based in the US and asked them to take up these cases. Many of them agreed to do it without taking any legal fees.”
Rajkumar says that the next logical step for them was lobbying with politicians in India, to put more pressure on the US government.
“We rushed to KT Rama Rao (the former NRI affairs Minister in Telangana) and made our case to him. He gave us an assurance that he was already looking into the issue. We also met with US Consul General in Hyderabad, Katherine B Hadda. We also wrote to Union Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj,” he adds.
While some students have slowly started returning to Hyderabad thanks to the work of several associations and attorneys, many have experienced the trauma of being detained and, in some cases, have returned with a large amount of student debt hanging over them.
“The American dream is long dead,” says an infuriated Rajkumar, adding, “Once more students return, we are planning to hold an event with them and the parents in Hyderabad, and counsel them on alternate countries we can look at for education and for jobs. We don’t want to or need to look at America as an option anymore; not after the way in which they have treated our children.”