The undercover operation at the fake University of Farmington has snowballed into a diplomatic hot potato between the United States and India, with 129 Indian students detained for being part of a “pay to stay” scheme that violated US immigration norms. Now, the Indian embassy is actively pursuing options to safeguard the interests of the detained students and hoping to secure their release.
Meanwhile, at least 50 Indians who were also enrolled in the dubious University of Farmington – but not arrested – have flown back home. While one batch of students landed at Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport on Sunday, another group returned the following day.
But what happens next to the detained Indian students, and what is their likely defence (and possible way out) going to be?
Explaining the Scam: The Fake University Modus Operandi
In case you haven’t read up about the case so far, click here for a quick summary of what the fake university brouhaha is all about.
MEA Swings Into Action, Argues ‘Students Were Duped’
The Ministry of External Affairs was prompt to issue a formal communication to the US administration soon after the news of the Farmington arrests surfaced. As of now, the ministry has confirmed that it has received consular access to 117 of the 129 detained Indian students.
As early as 2 February, the line of argument that the MEA planned to employ in defence of the detained students was clear. In a statement, the Ministry said, “We underlined (to the US administration) that students, who may have been duped into enrolling in the ‘University’ should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them. We have urged the US 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.” (Emphasis added)
Notice the text in bold. Why is this important?
This line in the MEA’s statement is crucial because it shows that the Indian government is trying to argue that the students at the fake University of Farmington may have been duped by the eight fraudulent recruiters (who have been arrested) and that the students were not a party, but a victim to the conspiracy. This line of argument suggests that the students may have been unaware of the nature of criminality they had become involved in by being enrolled at a university that did not conduct any classes.
Admittedly, it is disputable that students who had never attended a single class at the university they were enrolled in did not know anything about what was going on, especially if they had been working somewhere else. However, right now, it may very well be the best defence on offer for these detained students to argue that they are somehow an unwitting collateral damage in this money-making immigration racket.
US Argument: ‘All Arrested Students Were Aware of Their Crimes’
The American administration does not seem to have taken too kindly to India’s suggestion that some of the detained students may be innocent. Just a couple of days after the Indian government made a statement to that effect, the US State Department countered by asserting that all the arrested students were “aware of their crimes”.
“All participants in this scheme knew that the University of Farmington had no instructors or classes (neither online nor in-person) and were aware they were committing a crime in an attempt to fraudulently remain in the United States,” a US State Department spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.
Ethics of Undercover Op: The Question of Entrapment
The Oxford English Dictionary defines entrapment as “the action of tricking someone into committing a crime in order to secure their prosecution.”
So does what ICE did with the University of Farmington qualify as entrapment?
Well, that is certainly what the eight Indian recruiters, who have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit, are likely to argue in court.
During the proceedings at the US District Court in Detroit, Magistrate Judge R Steven Whalen stated that the defendants could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 fine if convicted.
“It is unfair for the government to set up something like this to entrap people,” John Brusstar, attorney for 35-year-old Kentucky resident and accused recruiter Phanideep Karnati, commented after the arraignment.
All eight Indians who have been charged by ICE have pleaded “not guilty” when produced for the first time before the federal court.
Now, here’s the main bone of contention.
US prosecutors are arguing that the students deliberately enrolled at the fake university with the intent to fool the system and obtain jobs under a student visa program called CPT (Curricular Practical Training) that allows students to work in the US.
Defense attorneys are arguing that such programs are legitimate and that the US agencies tricked the students into joining the University of Farmington by making them believe it is a real university. Not only did the university’s website and other communication feign a certain degree of authenticity, but more importantly, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) listed the university as a legitimate university for foreign students.
Essentially, the question is, since the DHS itself listed the University of Farmington as a legitimate university, can students who enrolled at the university be punished for doing so? That’s the ethical dilemma.
Then, there’s the practical question. Isn’t there a chance that students may or may not have known that this is a fake university, especially since they were being misled by DHS, the relevant authority on the subject, into believing that it was real?
2016 Precedent: The University of Northern New Jersey
The University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ) opened in 2013 and ran “operations” for the next three years. More than a thousand foreign “students” enrolled at the UNNJ, so as to continue staying in the United States and, without having to go to class, retain their student visas and work their dream jobs. To be able to avail the deal, they needed to pay a broker anywhere between 3,000 and 12,000 USD. And they did.
Little did they know that on 5 April 2016, the government of the United States would reveal that the university was a fake one and part of an undercover operation by the Department of Homeland Security, which would lead to the arrest of 22 brokers.
Even then, the same debate raged. US officials claimed that all the students knew they were committing fraud and 1,076 students were ordered to appear in immigration court. Yet, as New York Times reported then, several students “insisted that they were collateral damage in the sting operation, duped by both the brokers and the government.”
"“The students point to what they say was active deception by the government: in-person meetings with the university’s supposed president, letters confirming they could work instead of going to class, and Twitter messages about classes canceled because of bad weather.”" - The New York Times report on the University of Northern New Jersey
Even in the UNNJ operation, there had been a high number of Indians. At the time, a spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations had stated, "The 306 individuals from India who were purported students at the University of Northern New Jersey have been identified, located and placed in the immigration process for removal in accordance to proper due process."
Turns out, the University of Farmington (which started in 2015, a year before the UNNJ bust) was almost a play-by-play repeat of the fake University of Northern New Jersey scam. In the UNNJ case, more than 1,000 students had their visas revoked.
Does a similar fate await the students of the University of Farmington?
Members of US Congress Write to DHS & ICE
Four members of the US Congress have written a letter to Homeland Security and ICE regarding the condition of the detained Indian students.
"“We urge DHS and ICE to ensure the detained students are treated properly and afforded all rights provided to them under the law, including access to an attorney and release on bond, if they are eligible.”" - Letter from members of US Congress
Adding to the mounting pressure on the two agencies, the letter also stresses on the importance of India-US relations and the high number of Indian students who pursue higher education in the US. It notes, “In 2017, Indian students comprised 17.3% of all international students in our country, numbering over 186,000. These students are a vital pillar of the people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, and they come to the US on grounds of merit.”
The letter has been signed by three Democrats and one Republican.
- Rep Raja Krishnamoorthi (D) from Illinois
- Rep Thomas Suozzi (D) from New York
- Rep Brenda Lawrence (D) from Michigan
- Rep Robert Woodall (R) from Georgia
For Now, Deadlock Continues
Till such time as the deadlock is resolved, a 24/7 helpline has been established at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC for assistance and information related to the case, especially for the worried families of the detained students.
Over the next few days, the Indian government is likely to employ further diplomatic channels to seek the release of the students. Going by the MEA’s communication so far though, it seems that the eight Indian recruiters are unlikely to receive any similar governmental assistance.
Though US authorities claim that all arrested students had complete knowledge that what they were doing was criminal, the Indian government will hope that the friendly nature of Indo-US relations, especially on education, will cause the American administration to soften their position on the students.
The matter is likely to proceed in a US courtroom, and the support of the American administration may prove to be essential if the students are to get any respite from the law. Potentially, the students could have their visas revoked, or even face imprisonment or deportation.
As of yet, there is no certain resolution in sight. The deadlock continues, and so does the detention.
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