The arrest of 129 Indian students in the US Enrollment in a fake university has raised questions about how they ended up risking their future to study at a little known institution Deepthi Bathini Reports of BBC Telugu
Veeresh, whose name has been changed by his At the request, he was at home in California on January 30 when he heard the news: 130 students (the group included a Chinese citizen) enrolled at the University of Farmington had been arrested. It turned out that the university was a farce directed by undercover agents investigating immigration fraud.
He got scared, he says, because he was one of the 600 students who had enrolled at the Michigan-based university.
"I did not know what to believe, I thought it was a rumor, but the whole story came out the next day."
Fearing that he too was arrested, he left as soon as he could. He returned to India on February 4.
In addition to the students, eight alleged recruiters, all Indian citizens, were charged with "conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring foreigners for profit," according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).
The University of Farmington was created in 2015 to capture foreign citizens who had traveled to the US. UU With student visas but they were transferred to fake universities and then obtained work permits through them.
The practice is common enough for US officials. UU They refer to these colleges as "visa factories" and to the scam as a "pay per stay" scheme.
In 2011, federal officials shut down Tri-Valley University in California to cheat students, mostly from India, hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for what turned out to be illegal visas. In 2018, another university in California, Silicon Valley University, was also closed for similar reasons.
In 2016, immigration agents established the fake University of Northern New Jersey and arrested 21 people, mostly from China and India.
This time, the undercover operation sparked a minor diplomatic dispute: Indian officials said the students could have been tricked. Some advocates of immigration in the United States also believe that the government caught some innocent foreigners.
But the government of the United States denies it and says that the students registered in a false institution to obtain the benefits of the visa.
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The United States has long been a favorite destination for Indian students, almost half of those who have both Most common student visas in 2017-18 were from China (377,070) or from India (211,703), according to the government of the United States. While increased regulation has made it harder for students to stay and work, a variety of study and work visas still offer opportunities.
But for students who are desperate to move to the United States, there are more jobs and salaries are higher, the choice and paperwork can often be disconcerting, consultants say. All this makes them more vulnerable to fake universities and recruiters.
Veeresh moved to the United States in 2014 to study at the Polytechnic University of Northwest California. He says he graduated with a master's degree in 2016, but the university had lost its accreditation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
This accreditation makes students eligible for a work permit, which runs along with their program. Veeresh, who had started working at the time, says he decided to enroll in another university, which had accreditation, to be able to continue working.
Veeresh says that a friend told him about the University of Farmington and put him in touch with a recruiter, who was among those arrested. He enrolled in October 2017. "I signed up because I had no other option," he said.
He says that this gave him time to apply for an H1B visa, a nonimmigrant visa that allows companies to enter the United States will employ qualified foreigners, mostly technology workers, for up to six years. It is assigned by a lottery system and those who have the visa can apply for permanent residence and buy a property in the country.
Veeresh says he did what he could to verify the credentials of the university. He visited the website, which showed images of students in classes, libraries or anywhere else on campus; He compared the documents that were given to those that belonged to his friends from other universities. But he says he did not find anything wrong.
"I called the phone numbers on the website to ask about classes, they told me they would let us know when they scheduled them," he said.
"After six months, I asked a friend to get in touch with the recruiter, who contacted us with someone who told us that they are setting up systems for online classes and that they would inform us."
He says he did not suspect anything and that's why he paid the tuition and waited more than a year for classes to begin.
The US state department UU He has denied India's claim that students like Veeresh may have been deceived.
"All participants in this plan knew that Farmington University had no instructors or classes (either online or" in person ") and they knew they were committing a crime in an attempt to remain fraudulent in the United States," a spokesman said. Hindustan Times.
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Veeresh had taken a loan of 1.5 million rupees (£ 16,300, $ 21,000) to help pay for his education, the first university cost him $ 30,000 and Farmington cost him an additional $ 20,000, he says he had to borrow money from his friend to buy a ticket and return home.
He has not yet told his parents why he came back.
"They think I'm on vacation. But the truth is that I do not have a job or a university loan to pay. My parents would be devastated if they knew the truth. "
His parents are farmers and Veeresh hoped to help them by earning an income in dollars, some of which he could send home.
" I am the only one son. I wanted to take care of my parents. We do not have land or a house in our name. I wanted to go to the United States for a few years to earn more so I could buy a house for my family in India. "
The dream of a US job that pays in dollars is what motivates most of the students, says Bhaskar Pulinati, founder of Groovy Overseas Education Consultants.
"More than 90% of students are seeking a path to permanent residency. s of them are concerned about the reputation of the university, "he adds.
As EE. UU It becomes a more difficult place for immigrants to study or work, more and more students are searching in Canada and Australia, which may offer an easier way to become a resident. But the United States remains one of the best options.
"For a student, the priority is to go to the United States," says Sirisha Singavaram, a consultant based in the southern city of Hyderabad, where the US consulate issues more student visas than anywhere else in India.
"We receive requests from students who want to go desperately and ask if their documents can be 'edited' in order to enroll in a US university, but we reject such requests."
He adds that the problem is that most students do not understand the application process or visa and end up relying too much on brokers and consultants.
Veeresh, meanwhile, is looking for work in Hyderabad. But he still hopes to return to the United States.
"To achieve my dream of having my own home and being able to take care of my parents, I want to return to the United States for a few years."