The fallout from a fake university scheme in the U.S. grew Thursday, with a federal official confirming to VOA that police have arrested 138 foreign nationals across the country — and more arrests may be coming.
The scheme, according to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, lured willing students to a school they knew would never grant them a degree, but would allow them to work legally in the United States while technically being enrolled in higher education, potentially committing visa fraud.
All but one of the 130 arrested "students" are Indian citizens. The remaining person detained in the "pay-to-stay" plot is Palestinian, according to a U.S. immigration official. Eight more people face criminal charges.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents created the bogus University of Farmington, outside of Detroit, Michigan, in 2015. Since then, more than 600 foreign citizens enrolled in the school, the U.S. government alleges — despite the fact that it had no faculty, no campus, and no hallmarks of any legitimate U.S. higher education institution. It is unrelated to the similar-sounding University of Maine - Farmington, a legitimate public university, in the state of Maine.
According to federal charging documents made public this week, the students who applied for the school and paid tuition knew they would never have to enter a classroom or complete a homework assignment.
Instead, according to an indictment, the "students" were seeking a special work authorization called Curricular Practical Training (CPT), available to some full-time foreign students who want to perform paid work in their field of study.
They "knew that they would not attend any actual classes, earn credits, or make academic progress toward an actual degree ... their intent was to fraudulently maintain their student visa status and to obtain work authorization under the CPT program," the indictment alleges.
The Detroit Free Press first reported the case Wednesday, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the indictment of eight people accused of recruiting students to the fake university in exchange for financial bonuses.
The 130 faux students detained face civil immigration charges and "will be placed in removal proceedings," according to ICE.
The eight additional defendants face criminal charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbor aliens for profit, according to court documents, and a maximum penalty of five years in prison if convicted. They collectively earned more than $250,000 through the recruiting scheme, according to the federal indictment.
Those facing criminal charges are:
* 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.
DHS conducted a similar fake university sting operation a few years ago, establishing the bogus University of Northern New Jersey.
"These students were initially admitted into the United States to attend a (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) SEVP-certified school, but later transferred to the University of Farmington, which offered no academic or vocational programs of any kind," an ICE official said in an emailed statement. "Since the school did not offer courses or confer degrees, the enrollees were simply using the F-1 program as a pay-to-stay scheme."
Looking at the University of Farmington's now-shuttered website, the gaps in information are easy to spot for anyone familiar with U.S. school websites. There is no list of faculty members, no images of the Michigan campus, and no way to contact the school other than a general email address.
The first internet appearance of the university, according to an archival site, is in 2016.
Since then, the fake school maintained a modest online presence that included a few brief discussions in online forums about schools that were good for obtaining CPT. It was also in the Yelp database, though no one had reviewed it. The address listed for the school in Farmington Hills, Michigan, routes users to a nondescript office park.
The explanations about admissions and at least one of the fake school's programs seemed to be cribbed from actual universities' sites.
The Farmington indictment says: "Each student knew that the University's program was not approved by the United States Department of Homeland Security, was illegal, and that discretion should be used when discussing the program with others." But the school is listed as SEVP-certified.
The onus is on the students to comply with the education visa requirements, according to an immigration official — and that includes doing due diligence on whether a school is operating properly — conducting classes, employing legitimate faculty, and allowing students to make progress toward a degree.
"Students need to do the research," the official said.