Washington: The US has accused the students arrested in connection with a fake university visa scam of being “aware they were committing a crime” for visas when they enrolled at the institution while lawyers for those charged accused the government of tricking them.
The State Department said on Monday in a statement: “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 US.”
The US reaction came after India’s External Affairs Ministry issued a demarche to the US embassy in New Delhi asserting that the students “have been duped into enrolling in the ‘university’ (and) should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them”.
Lawyers for the accused recruiters in the scam on Monday accused the government of tricking the students into enrolling at the University of Farmington, a fake institution set up by US law enforcement officials in a sting operation to crackdown on visa fraud, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Last week, US immigration officials arrested 129 Indian students and eight alleged recruiters involved with the university.
John Brusstar, a lawyer for one of the accused recruiters, criticized the sting operation saying “it is unfair for the government to set up something like this to entrap people”, the Free Press reported.
The students face only civil immigration charges while the eight alleged recruiters have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit and face maximum sentences of five years.
Some of the arrested students have been released from custody on condition that they wear ankle monitors that would allow authorities to monitor their movements electronically.
Release with electronic monitors is considered preferable to being detained with those accused of major crimes while awaiting trial or disposition of cases.
One of the arrested students is a Palestinian, according to the newspaper.
About 600 students who joined the fake university may be at risk of legal action.
Five of the alleged recruiters were produced wearing shackles in a federal court in Detroit on Monday and denied they were guilty, according to the Free Press.
The lawyers for four of them agreed to their being held in jail because they face detention by immigration authorities as they are undocumented, the newspaper said.
But Phanideep Karnati, who is represented by Brusstar and is on a work visa, was ordered released on a $10,000 unsecured bond by Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen, according to the Free Press.
Another accused, Prem Rampeesa, has requested an interpreter and is to be produced in court later, the newspaper reported.
The newspaper quoted prosecutors as saying that the students enrolled at the fake university in order to get jobs under a student visa programme called Curricular Practical Training (CPT) that would allow them to work.
But lawyers for the accused countered saying that such programmes are legitimate and that the government had tricked them into joining the University of Farmington.
Many of the students had come to the US on legitimate student visas and studied at other universities but were trying to extend their stay through CPT visas by transferring to Farmington.
Although the arrests came during a period of heightened immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump, the fake university was set up in 2015 by Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.
The so-called university offered student visas without requiring them to attend classes, enabling them to work illegally.
This is at least the second fake university run by government agencies.
Obama administration officials set up University of North Jersey and ensnared over 1,000 students, most of them from India and China.
Twenty-one people who acted as student visa brokers were arrested in the crackdown in 2016.
US law enforcement frequently uses elaborate sting operations by undercover agents to deter crimes of all types.