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"Top Priority" For Sushma Swaraj's Team As Indian Students Arrested In US

WASHINGTON / NEW DELHI: Sushma Swaraj and her team at the Ministry of External Affairs are giving "top priority" to Indian students who have been arrested in the United States for enrolling themselves in a fake university, in what authorities are calling a "pay-to-stay" in America scheme. Of the 130 foreign students arrested, 129 are from India. While immigration attorneys said that the students were not aware that the university was operating illegally and illegitimately and criticised authorities for using "troubling" methods to trap them for profits, officials hold the students accountable, claiming that they "knowingly enrolled" themselves in the fake university to falsely maintain their student visa status to remain in the US. The US' Department of Homeland Security recently carried out an undercover operation at the university in Detroit's Farmington Hills designed to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors who announced charges in the case.

After the undercover operation, US' Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 130 foreign students, including 129 Indians, for immigration violations. "The ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has administratively arrested 130 foreign nationals enrolled at the University of Farmington for civil immigration violations. Of the 130, 129 were Indian nationals," Khaalid H Walls, an ICE spokesperson, told news agency Press Trust of India. "These individuals have been placed in removal proceedings, and ICE will seek to maintain them in its custody pending the outcome of those proceedings," he said. The ICE agents made the arrests on Wednesday, the same day federal indictments were unsealed that charged eight people, all of whom are either Indians or Indian-Americans, in a visa fraud scheme. All eight were charged criminally for "conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit." But the 130 students were arrested only on civil immigration charges, local media reported. The arrests took place across the US, in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, Michigan, California, Louisiana, North Carolina and St Louis. The students had immigrated legally to the US on student visas, but had allegedly transferred to the University of Farmington so that they could work, said attorneys.

Federal prosecutors claim the students were aware the university was not running a legitimate operation. But attorneys who have spoken with students or with family and friends of those arrested are pushing back against the government's claims. Ravi Mannam, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, said the fake university "hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous master's programmes". He said what the University of Farmington was offering - allowing students to work while enrolled - is not unusual. So the students may have thought it was an authorised university and work programme through a type of F-1 visa known as CPT (Curricular Practical Training). Mr Mannam said some Indians had come to the US to enroll elsewhere, only to find that their intended programme had lost accreditation. So they enrolled at the University of Farmington, believing that they could apply their prior credits to the new programme, which seemed to emphasise work experience.

Other students had completed legitimate master's in the US but were waiting to be approved for a specialty work visa, so they enrolled in school as a stopgap measure. "The government utilised very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution," Mr Mannam said. Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, "We are aware about this incident. We are ascertaining more details (through) our embassy in Washington and different consulates in the US...We have also mobilised the Indian community organisations in the US to extend all possible support to the Indian students who are affected by this incident." The Ministry of External Affairs has placed the issue as a "top priority".

We have also placed a formal request for consular access, emphasising that the request may be taken as very high priority," Mr Kumar said. The Indian embassy in the US has also opened a 24/7 hotline to assist 129 Indian students. It has appointed a nodal officer to help the students in distress. The two numbers - (+1) 202-322-1190 and (+1) 202-340-2590 - would be manned by senior embassy officials round the clock, officials said. The arrested students, their friends and family members can contact the embassy at the e-mail address: cons3.washington@mea.gov.in. The ICE said foreign students are granted what are called "F" and "M" visas to study in the US and must maintain their legal status by enrolling in a varsity certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. The ICE said since the Farmington varsity did not offer courses, the students were using the programme as a way to work.