India's government is urging the U.S. to release 129 Indian foreign students who were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for enrolling in a fake university in metro Detroit that had been created by ICE to lure people trying to remain here on student visas.
In a strongly-worded statement, India's Minister of External Affairs expressed concern about the arrests of Indian students, calling their welfare its "highest priority."
India asked the U.S. not to deport the students, many of whom were trying to work and earn master's degrees.
"We have urged the U.S. side to share full details and regular updates of the students with the Government, to release them from detention at the earliest and not to resort to deportation against their will," read the statement issued Saturday.
Last week, ICE detained 130 students, 129 from India and one Palestinian, who had been enrolled at the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, a fake university created by investigators with ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The government alleges the students enrolled in the fake university so they could remain in the U.S. on a student visa, while knowing they wouldn't be taking actual classes.
The university posed as a legitimate place for foreign students, many of them trying to earn master's degrees. More than 600 students enrolled in what federal prosecutors call a "pay to stay" scheme.
The students' arrests on civil immigration charges have sparked civil rights concerns from advocates who say the U.S. government tricked unsuspecting people. They say it's legitimate for foreign students to enroll in university programs that allow them to work, which is what the students at the University of Farmington were doing.
Separately, federal prosecutors in Detroit have criminally charged 8 other people alleged to be recruiters who brought in students in exchange for fees and kickbacks, according to federal indictments unsealed Wednesday. The 130 students are not criminally charged and so should be treated differently, said India's government.
The Indian government said it "continues to closely monitor and take proactive measures to address the situation arising out of the detention of several Indian students in connection with their enrollment in a fraudulent university in the United States."
India has set up a hotline and also is working on providing legal help. The Indian government expressed their concerns to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
"Our concern over the dignity and well-being of the detained students and the need for immediate consular access for Indian officials to the detainees was reiterated," said India's Ministry of External Affairs. "We underlined that students, who may have been duped into enrolling in the 'University' should be treated differently from those recruiters who have duped them."
In the U.S., some Indian-American groups and attorneys have raised concerns about the arrests, saying they went after students who just wanted to further their education and work in the U.S. One group in Atlanta has said it considering filing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, according to a report in the Times of India.
Federal prosecutors say the students were all aware it was an illegal operation, but attorneys dispute that, saying the government deliberately misled the students by posing as a real university.
Russell Abrutyn, an immigration attorney in Berkley who is contact with some of the students detained, said "a lot of the students were ... essentially taken advantage of or taken in by what appeared to be a legitimate school."
Abrutyn said a majority of the students detained are in Michigan, with several at Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek.
"I think it's really alarming that the government is going out of its way and spending millions of dollars to set up these false schemes to entice foreign students and immigrants who are already a vulnerable class of people to break the law," said Amer Zahr, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Detroit-Mercy and a spokesman for one of the students arrested, Najlaa Karim Musarsa, 29, of Dearborn Heights. "It's really disturbing."
Musarsa, of Palestinian origin from the West Bank, is currently in custody in Calhoun County jail.
Many of students were detained in Michigan and also in Houston, Atlanta, Louisiana, California, New Jersey, and North Carolina, said attorneys. They were studying and working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
India said its consular offices in the U.S. "have visited several detention centers throughout the U.S. to extend consular assistance to detained students. So far, about 30 Indian students have been contacted by our consular officers. Efforts to contact the remaining Indian students are continuing."
The American Telugu Association and American Telangana Association said they are working with attorneys to try and help the students.
Ravi Mannam, an attorney in Atlanta, told the Free Press last week that ICE's fake university "kind of hooked these students by promising them credits for their previous masters programs."
ICE says the students arrested were not in valid status because they were not enrolled in a full course of study, which is required by Homeland Security. The students had previously attended other universities, but then transferred to the University of Farmington as part of a Curricular Practical Training program that allows students to work.
Five ofThe eight recruiters who were charged are due to appear in court in Detroit on Monday afternoon for a hearing. Attorneys say they are hoping the 130 students can get hearings soon in front of federal immigration judges.