The 130 foreign students arrested for enroling at a fake university allegedly to remain in the US are largely Indians and were not aware of the varsity's illegitimate operation, immigration attorneys have said while criticising authorities for using "troubling" methods to trap them.
The university in Detroit's Farmington Hills was part of an undercover operation by the Department of Homeland Security designed to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors who announced charges in the case.
In what the authorities called a "pay-to-stay" scheme, foreign students knowingly enrolled in the fake school to falsely maintain their student visa status and remain in the United States, according to prosecutors.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents made the arrests in the early morning hours Wednesday, the same day federal indictments were unsealed that charged eight people, all of whom are either Indian nationals or Indian Americans -- in a visa fraud scheme.
The eight defendants were charged criminally for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit. But the 130 students were arrested on only civil immigration charges, Detroit Free Press reported.
The sweep was one of the largest targeting immigrants from India in recent years, immigration attorneys said.
In a nationwide sweep, federal agents with ICE arrested "130 foreign nationals on civil immigration charges," ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell told the Free Press on Thursday.
"This may increase."
The students swept up in the scheme were largely from India, lawyers said.
The arrests took place across the US, in New Jersey, Atlanta, Houston, Michigan, California, Louisiana, North Carolina, St Louis, according to immigration attorneys.
Some of the arrests of the students came at their homes.
The students had immigrated legally to the US on student visas and had transferred to the University of Farmington so 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 government's fake university "kind of hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous master's programs."
He said that what the University of Farmington was offering — allowing students to work while enrolled — is not unusual. And 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).
Michael Sofo, an attorney in Atlanta with Mannan and Associates said based on what he has heard about the students, it's "not been the case" that they were knowingly participating in an illegal operation.
"There are specific universities who have advanced degree programmes that primarily involved practical training from day one that allows them to enroll and the bulk of the time is spent working," Sofo said. The courses "can be done at a remote location. It doesn't have to be where they attend the university. ... Programs like this exist and they are legal."
Mannam said some students had come from India to the United States 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 program, which seemed to emphasise work experience, he said.
Other students had completed legitimate master’s programs in the United States but were waiting to be approved for a specialty work visa, so they enrolled in school as a “stopgap measure,” he said.
"The government utilised very questionable and troubling methods to get these foreign students to join the institution," Mannam said.
Rahul Reddy, an immigration lawyer in Houston, said he had spoken with about 25 students who had enrolled at the University of Farmington and who were facing possible consequences. Some had already been arrested, he said, while others had rushed to leave the country.
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 are getting in touch with the concerned US authorities to extend consular assistance to the people who have been affected. 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," he added.
The ICE said that 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 university certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
The ICE said that that since the University of Farmington did not offer courses, the students were using the programme as a way to work.
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security shut down a website they had been created for the University of Farmington. On the website, it now reads: "The University of Farmington has been closed by the US Department of Homeland Security, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement."
It tells affected students to contact their local office of Homeland Security Investigations, the ICE agency that did the investigation and undercover operation.