The Department of Homeland Security set up a fake university in Michigan to snare student immigrants in the United States who were without proper authorization, according to federal indictments unsealed Wednesday.
Eight people were arrested and indicted for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. The indictment said the defendants helped at least 600 "foreign citizens to illegally remain, re-enter and work in the United States and actively recruited them to enroll in a fraudulent school as part of a 'pay to stay' scheme."
The story was first reported by the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.
The indictments allege that the defendants "conspired with each other and others to fraudulently facilitate hundreds of foreign nationals in illegally remaining and working in the United States by actively recruiting them to enroll into a metro Detroit private university that, unbeknownst to the conspirators, was operated by HSI (Homeland Security Investigation) special agents as part of an undercover operation" for the past two years.
The University of Farmington website says it "traces its lineage back to the early 1950s ..." It is "approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll international students" and is "accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and licensed by the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs as a private post-secondary college." The site remained active Wednesday.
International students in the United States must secure F-1, M-1 or J-1 visas and attend accredited programs and leave the United States within 60 days of the program ending. While the U.S. State Department grants student immigrant visas, the Department of Homeland Security administers them. There are more than 1 million international students in the United States after a dramatic rise in the past decade that looks to be leveling out, according to recent metrics from the Institute for International Education.
Chinese and Indian students comprise half of all international students in the United States.
"We are very excited about welcoming you to the UF community and helping you achieve your academic goals," the website of the University of Farmington states. "You'll find UF to be a vibrant and growing institution where students, faculty and staff enjoy a challenging and collaborative environment."
The eight defendants charged are accused of helping enroll students in exchange for cash, kickbacks, and tuition credits as part of the "pay to stay" scheme, the indictment said.
Six were arrested in metro Detroit, one in Florida, and one in Virginia.
“We are all aware that international students can be a valuable asset to our country, but as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in a statement reported by the Free Press.
The indictments say the operation allowed students to stay in the United States without proper visas. The U.S. government alleges the students who enrolled "knew that they would not attend any actual classes, earn credits or make academic progress towards an actual degree," read an indictment.
“Homeland Security Investigations special agents uncovered a nationwide network that grossly exploited U.S. immigration laws," said Special Agent in Charge Steve Francis, who heads Detroit office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the newspaper reported.
“These suspects aided hundreds of foreign nationals to remain in the United States illegally by helping to portray them as students, which they most certainly were not. HSI remains vigilant to ensure the integrity of U.S. immigration laws and will continue to investigate this and other transnational crimes."
Charged in the indictments were:
Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, FL
Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, VA
Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, KY
Prem Rampeesa, 26, of Charlotte, NC
Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, CA
Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, PA
Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta, GA.
Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas, TX