The arrest of 129 Indian students in the US for enrolling in a fake university has sparked questions about how they ended up risking their future to study at a little-known institution. BBC Telugu’s Deepthi Bathini reports.
Veeresh, whose name has been changed on his request, was at home in California on 30 January when he heard the news – 130 students (the group included one Chinese national) enrolled at the University of Farmington had been arrested. The university, it turned out, was a sham run by undercover agents investigating immigration fraud.
He panicked, he says, because he was one of the 600 students who had enrolled at the Michigan-based university.
“I did not know what to believe. I thought it was a rumour but the whole story was out the next day.”
Fearing he too would be arrested, he left as soon as he could. He returned to India on 4 February.
Apart from the students, eight alleged recruiters, all Indian citizens, were charged with “conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit,” according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
The University of Farmington was set up in 2015 to catch foreign nationals who had travelled to the US on student visas but stayed on by transferring to fake universities and then obtaining work permits through them.
The practice is common enough that US officials refer to such colleges as “visa mills” and the scam as a “pay-to-stay” scheme.
In 2011, federal officials closed the Tri-Valley University in California for cheating students, mostly from India, of hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for what turned out to be illegal visas. In 2018, another university in California, Silicon Valley University, was also shut down for similar reasons.
In 2016, immigration agents set up the fake University of Northern New Jersey and arrested 21 people, mostly from China and India.
This time, the sting operation has sparked a minor diplomatic row – with Indian officials saying the students may have been duped. Some immigration advocates in the US also believe some innocent foreigners were entrapped by the government.
But the US government denies this, saying students knowingly enrolled in a fake institution for the visa benefits.
The US has long been a favoured destination for Indian students – nearly half of those holding the two most common student visas in 2017-18 were either from China (377,070) or India (211,703), according to the US government. While increased regulation has made it harder for students to stay on and work, an array of study and work visas still offer opportunities.
But for students who are desperate to move to the US – there are more jobs and salaries are higher – the choice and the paperwork can often be bewildering, say consultants. All of this makes them more vulnerable to fake colleges and recruiters.
Veeresh moved to the US in 2014 to study at the Northwestern Polytechnic University in California. He says he graduated with a master’s degree in 2016 but the university had lost its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) accreditation.
This accreditation makes students eligible for a work permit, which runs alongside their programme. Veeresh, who had begun working by then, says he decided to enrol at another university, which had the accreditation, so he could continue working.
Veeresh says a friend told him about the University of Farmington and put him in touch with a recruiter, who was among those arrested. He enrolled in October 2017. “I enrolled because I did not have any other option,” he said.
He says this gave him time to apply for a H1B visa, a non-immigrant visa that allows companies in the US to employ skilled foreigners – mostly technology workers – for up to six years. It’s allocated by a lottery system and those who hold the visa can apply for permanent residency and buy property in the country.
Veeresh says he did what he could to verify the college’s credentials. He visited the website, which showed pictures of students in classes, libraries or elsewhere on campus; he compared the documents he was given to those belonging to his friends from other colleges. But he says he did not find anything amiss.
“I called the phone numbers on the website to ask about classes. I was told they would let us know when they schedule them,” he said.
“After six months, I asked a friend to contact the recruiter, who connected us with someone who told us that they are setting up systems for online classes and would let us know.”
He claims not to have suspected anything and so paid the tuition and waited for more than a year for classes to begin.
The US state department has denied India’s claim that students like Veeresh may have been duped.
“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 spokesperson told the Hindustan Times.
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Veeresh had taken a loan of 1.5m rupees (£16,300; $21,000) to help pay for his education. The first university cost him $30,000 and Farmington cost him an additional $20,000. He says he had to borrow money from his friend to buy a ticket to come back home.
He still hasn’t told his parents why he returned.
“They think I am on vacation. But the truth is that I have no job and a college loan to pay off. My parents would be devastated if they knew the truth.”
His parents are farmers and Veeresh had hoped to help them out by earning an income in dollars, some of which he could send home.
“I am the only son. I wanted to take care of my parents. We do not have land or a house in our name. I wanted to go to America for few years to earn better so that I can buy a house for my family in India.”
This dream – of an American job that pays in dollars – is what motivates most students, says Bhaskar Pulinati, founder of Groovy Overseas Education Consultants.
“More than 90% of the students are looking for a path to permanent residency. Very few of them are concerned about the reputation of the university,” he adds.
As the US becomes a harder place for immigrants to study or work in, more and more students are looking to Canada and Australia, which can offer an easier path to becoming a resident. But the US remains a top choice.
“For a student, the priority is to go to the US,” says Sirisha Singavaram, a consultant based in the southern city of Hyderabad, where the US consulate issues more student visas than anywhere else in India.
“We do get requests from students who desperately want to go and ask if their documents can be ‘edited’ so they can enrol in a US college but we deny such requests.”
She adds that the problem is most students do not understand the application or visa process and end up relying too much on brokers and consultants.
Veeresh, meanwhile, is looking for a job in Hyderabad. But he is still hopeful of returning to the US.
“To achieve my dream of having my own house and to be able to take care of my parents, I want to go back to the US for a few years.”