Six Indians confess to visa fraud by enrolling students in fake university

indica News Bureau-


Six Indian citizens confessed to a visa fraud conspiracy after a sting by the federal government caught hundreds of foreign students at a fake university, as per the government officials.

The Herald Mail reported that the six men recruited students to the “University of Farmington” in Michigan, which was set up by the US Department of Homeland Security and staffed with undercover agents, court documents said.

The recruiters helped around 600 foreign citizens to stay in the US illegally by enrolling them into the fake school in Detroit area, between February 2017 to January 2019, the federal officials alleged in the court documents filed in Michigan.

According to the court documents, all but one of the recruiters received money from federal agents masquerading as school officials in exchange for bringing in the students.

“While ‘enrolled’ at the university, 100% of the foreign citizen students never spent a single second in a classroom,” the government said in a court filing. “The university … had no teachers, classes, or educational services.”

An archived version of the fake school’s website shows that Homeland Security claimed it was a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution,” licensed by the State of Michigan and approved by Homeland Security to enroll international students. Undergraduate tuition was $8,500 a year, with graduate tuition at $11,000 a year, the site said. “University of Farmington traces its lineage back to the early 1950s, when returning soldiers from the Second World War were seeking a quality and marketable education,” the site said.

Despite pleading guilty, several of the recruiters argued during sentencing that they wouldn’t have broken the law if the government hadn’t set up and marketed the institution. Prosecutors alleged that most of the recruiters received from $15,000 to more than $150,000 for referring students.

Defendant  Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, in his court filing said, “The government saw the greatest financial reward in this case, pocketing likely millions of dollars in tuition money from hundreds of students.”

ICE officials declined to say whether the government had kept tuition fees.

The federal officials said that the six men are among 250 students, the vast majority Indian citizens, arrested across the US between January and July after enrolling in the school, officials with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Detroit said early this month. The majority of those arrested left the US voluntarily. Others have been deported or are awaiting deportation.

The federal government launched the University of Farmington project in 2015 when Barack Obama was president, one of the indictments against the recruiters said. But according to recruiters’ court filings, a college accreditor’s loss of federal recognition in late 2016 pushed hundreds of students toward the school. Roughly 16,000 foreign students and recent graduates from institutions certified by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools lost their visa status, and any work permits obtained via federal training programs, the filings said. The council’s recognition has since been restored.

Prem Rampeesa, who had obtained a master’s degree in computer science from Northwestern Polytechnic University in Fremont in 2016, “was desperate to find a way to remain in the United States,” his sentencing memo said.

Rampeesa testified that he had confirmed with one of the undercover agents at Farmington that going to school there was “just about maintaining (visa) status” and that he wouldn’t be attending classes. He told that to students he recruited, he testified.

While Rampeesa, 27, and other foreign students were scrambling to find ways to remain in the US, the undercover agents at Farmington boosted the school’s online presence “ to attract students who were out of status,” alleged the sentencing memo of recruiter Bharath Kakireddy.

Kakireddy, 30, who had a master’s degree from now-defunct Silicon Valley University in San Jose, “fell victim to this charade,” his memo said. “The situation for Kakireddy and others similarly situated was dire. Unless they were enrolled in an accredited university within 15 days of the termination of the accreditation, they would be out of status,” the memo said.

Like Kakireddy, Santosh Sama — “by far the most prolific” recruiter, according to the government — pointed to Homeland Security as the instigator of any fraud. Sama received an email from Farmington in 2017, his sentencing memo said, and called to ask about enrollment. “Without the original email targeted to Mr. Sama … we may not be here in this case,” the memo said.

The recruiters pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. Prison sentences, handed down between June and November, ranged from a year and a day for three men who recruited fewer than 20 students, to two years for Sama, who prosecutors said recruited more than 300 students and was paid more than $150,000. The court also issued orders that recruiters forfeit the money they received.