Michigan, February 1: The US government’s own Department of Homeland Security laid a trap to catch the unsuspecting scammers involved in the trade of illegal entry and stay called “pay and stay”. They set up a fake university – the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan which billed itself as a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution,” with an innovative curriculum, flexible class schedules and a diverse student body.
And the University had no curriculum, no classes and no real students.
The university was part of an elaborate undercover operation by the Department of Homeland Security designed to expose immigration fraud, according to federal prosecutors in the US.
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 authorities charged eight “recruiters” in the case. Those charged include:
- Bharath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Florida.
- Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta.
- Suresh Reddy Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Virginia.
- Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, Kentucky.
- Prem Kumar Rampeesa, 26, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
- Santosh Reddy Sama, 28, of Fremont, California.
- Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
- Naveen Prathipati, 29, of Dallas.
Starting in 2015, the university was part of an undercover operation dubbed “Paper Chase” and designed to identify recruiters and entities engaged in immigration fraud, according to the indictment. Homeland Security agents started posing as university officials in February 2017.
From early 2017 to January 2019, the recruiters “assisted at least 600 other foreign citizens to illegally remain, re-enter and work in the United States, and actively recruited them to enrol” at Farmington in a “pay to stay” scheme, the court documents say.
In February 2017, Santosh Reddy Sama, one of the recruiters arrested, called the university and inquired about enrolling as a student “without attending classes in order to fraudulently maintain his immigration status,” according to the indictment. During the phone call with an undercover agent, Sama also requested a tuition reduction for bringing students to the university.
Within weeks, Kandala, Kakireddy and Thakkallapally contacted undercover agents with identical requests, according to the government.
In late 2017, the recruiters started getting paid for recruiting the phony students.
Sama and Kandala met with an undercover agent at the university in January 2018 to collect $20,000 for recruiting students, prosecutors allege.
Sama collected another $20,000 in June 2018, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said the recruiters collected money from the fake university for bringing in students and made more than $250,000 in profit.
As a result of the sting operation 130 people had been arrested of which 129 are Indians from Telengana and Andhra Pradesh, Southern states of India.
The university had a real website with program details, tuition pricing and contact information. The phone number for the university went to a voice mail box for the “office of admissions.”
But the university was not staffed with instructors and had no actual classes, according to the indictments.
Prosecutors said that everyone involved with the school knew that.
“Each of the foreign citizens who ‘enrolled’ and made ‘tuition’ payments to the University knew that they would not attend any actual classes, earn credits, or make academic progress toward an actual degree in a particular field of study,” the indictments said, adding that the students knew that “discretion should be used when discussing the program with others.”
Indian embassy in Washington DC has been in touch with US officials and has sought consular access to the arrested students and officials have said they are doing all they can to help.
Two years ago, a similar sting (fake set up of the University of Northern New Jersey) had resulted in about 20 brokers arrested and about 1000 students facing deportation or life bans. Most of those involved were from China and India.
-R S, Kharbanda, Michigan