University of Farmington sting – protests continue against detention of Indian students

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India has lodged a protest with the United States government after several Indian students were detained there in connection with their enrollment in a fake university, after an undercover operation.

The American authorities said this past week that they had indicted eight people accused of exploiting the country’s student visa system. They were said to have helped foreign nationals illegally remain in the United States by enrolling them into the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which billed itself as a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution” with an innovative curriculum, flexible class schedules and a diverse student body, reported Reuters.

But the private university was being secretly operated by agents of the Department of Homeland Security to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors who announced charges in the case.

The Indian government said on Saturday that it had issued a rare “démarche” to the United States Embassy in New Delhi, telling it that Indian officials needed immediate consular access to the detainees.

“We underlined that students, who may have been duped into enrolling in the ‘University’, should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them,” the Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Indian government also urged the United States to release the students from detention, without deporting them.

Though the American government did not disclose the nationalities of those involved, the Indian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that “several Indian students” had been detained. Indian news outlets reported that more than 100 students had been held in the United States, reported Reuters.

The Detroit Free Press reported 129 of the 139 students arrested by ICE were from India. One student is Palestinian.

In a statement on Jan. 30, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement said eight people had been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit.

“Homeland Security Investigations special agents uncovered a nationwide network that grossly exploited U.S. immigration laws,” Steve Francis, the Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge, said in the statement. “These suspects aided hundreds of foreign nationals to remain in the United States illegally by helping to portray them as students, which they most certainly were not.”

The agency said that the defendants had collectively profited in excess of $250,000.

The university in the Detroit area was operated for almost two years by special agents as part of an undercover operation starting in 2017, the statement said, Reuters reported.

“All participants in the scheme knew that the school had no instructors or actual classes,” it said.

China, India and South Korea together sent 56.1 percent of all international students in the United States in 2017-18, an annual survey by the Institute of International Education showed last year.

The Detroit Free Press reported India’s Minister of External Affairs expressed concern about the arrests of Indian students, calling their welfare its “highest priority.”

“We have urged the U.S. side to share full details and regular updates of the students with the Government, to release them from detention at the earliest and not to resort to deportation against their will,” read the statement issued Saturday.

Russell Abrutyn, an immigration attorney in Berkley who is contact with some of the students detained, told the Detroit Free Press, “a lot of the students were … essentially taken advantage of or taken in by what appeared to be a legitimate school.”

Abrutyn said a majority of the students detained are in Michigan, with several at Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek.

“I think it’s really alarming that the government is going out of its way and spending millions of dollars to set up these false schemes to entice foreign students and immigrants who are already a vulnerable class of people to break the law,” Amer Zahr, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Detroit-Mercy and a spokesman for one of the students arrested, Najlaa Karim Musarsa, 29, of Dearborn Heights, was quoted as saying by the Free Press. “It’s really disturbing.”

Musarsa, of Palestinian origin from the West Bank, is currently in custody in Calhoun County jail.

India said its consular offices in the U.S. “have visited several detention centers throughout the U.S. to extend consular assistance to detained students. So far, about 30 Indian students have been contacted by our consular officers. Efforts to contact the remaining Indian students are continuing.”

The American Telugu Association and American Telangana Association said they are working with attorneys to try and help the students.

Ravi Mannam, an attorney in Atlanta, told the Free Press last week that ICE’s fake university “kind of hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous masters programs.”

ICE says the students arrested were not in valid status because they were not enrolled in a full course of study, which is required by Homeland Security. The students had previously attended other universities, but then transferred to the University of Farmington as part of a Curricular Practical Training program that allows students to work.

The American Bazaar reported Indian Ambassador to the United States Harsh Vardhan Shringla, speaking at a meet in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Saturday, said the Indian students may have got trapped into the scam as they were clueless or ignorant about the legality of the Michigan school.

“And for many of [the students], we understand … were quite unaware of the rules and the regulations,” he said. “Many of them thought they were going in for a real university, [many] were going [to] that university, asking about classes and enquiring why classes were not being held.”

He added: “[There] is a difference between Indian law and American law. In Indian law, we don’t have this concept of entrapment. We only investigate when there is a sense of guilt, when there is a sense of someone has committed an act that is a criminal act or misdemeanor. That act is investigated and then you come out with evidence. But you don’t intentionally lure people into a situation where they make mistakes and commit criminal acts or acts that can be in contradiction with the law of the land you live in.”

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