Federal immigration officials have arrested more students who were enrolled at a fake university in metro Detroit.
And many of the students who enrolled at the university created by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are now in the process of being removed from the U.S. as Indian-American advocates grapple with what they say is an unprecedented number of arrests of Indian students.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested 161 foreign students from the University of Farmington on civil immigration violations, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said this week.
"Several have since been removed and others are currently in various stages of the removal process," Walls said.
More could be arrested or removed in the future as "enforcement action against current and former students of the University of Farmington remains ongoing," Walls said.
The number of jailed students grows
About 600 students, mostly from India, were enrolled at the university in Farmington Hills, a majority of them in master's degree programs in engineering or computer-related fields. The students had arrived in the U.S. legally through approved student visas and didn't have criminal records, said immigration attorneys.
On Jan. 30, federal authorities announced the University of Farmington was a fake university set up by DHS that lured students in an undercover operation by posing as a real university with authorization by the U.S. government and an accreditation agency. About 130 students were arrested in January.
That has increased to 161 students arrested as of Feb. 19, Walls said. The students are being housed at 34 detention centers across the U.S., said the American Telugu Association.
The immigration violations they're now accused of only happened because the university they were enrolled in was fake and set up by ICE, something the students did not know at the time they enrolled, said attorneys.
The roughly 440 remaining students who haven't been arrested are anxious about their future status, with some of them already opting to leave, said immigration attorneys.
Most of the students are from Telugu-speaking regions of India, said the association and lawyers for the students. One student who is Palestinian and was arrested has left for the West Bank.
ICE did not have the specific numbers of how many former students have left the U.S. and how many remain in custody. An additional eight were arrested and charged criminally as being recruiters of the students.
About 100 of the students arrested on immigration charges remain in jail, said Parmesh Bheemreddy, president of the American Telugu Association. He expressed frustration with getting solid information about the status of the students and little help from elected officials or Indian embassy officials.
"We're having a tough time tracking down" all of the students, Bheemreddy said. He said the scale of arrests of Indian students has not been seen before.
It has "never happened in the history of the Indian diaspora" to have this many arrested at the same time, he said.
Some of the students at the University of Farmington have been granted what's called a voluntary departure, which is legally different from being deported. This could allow them a chance to come to the U.S. in the future after a three or 10-year period, depending on how long they were at the fake university, said attorneys.
Some were able to get released on bond while they await their departure date, said Bheemreddy. But others, like at the detention center in Butler County in Ohio, have not been allowed to post bond, he said.
In one case, a student was arrested one month after the birth of his baby, said Bheemreddy.
"She's going through hell in Ohio," he said.
In another case, a student had to break off a marriage because he now faces being sent back to India, said Bheemreddy, who has been in touch with students and attorneys.
Many of the students come from poor backgrounds in India and took out "loans to study here to study and pursue the American dream," he said. Now, it will be difficult to pay off their debts after they're sent back to India.
"Most of them who have had court dates were granted voluntary departure," said Prashanthi Reddy, an attorney in New York City who represents some of the students.
Reddy said some of the jailed students have court dates coming up later this month, but there are delays for those who have been released on bond.
Others are facing challenges being in jail for the first time. Many are vegetarians for cultural and religious reasons and have lost a lot of weight while in detention.
Some are just getting "green beans and some bread" in jail, Bheemreddy said. "Many have lost weight and look like punctured balloons."
"These are innocent girls and boys," he said of the students. "They're not criminals. It's mentally and physically torturing. It is a life-changing event for them."
Last month, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, met with members of the Telugu community at her district office in Lansing, according to a letter she sent to them. The letter expressed concern for the students' safety and welfare. Bheemreddy said the letter should have been sent to the Department of Homeland Security or ICE in order to be more effective.
Indian government officials have previous said they're trying to help the students who were detained.
Rahul Reddy, an immigration attorney in Houston who is representing some of the students, estimates that about 90 percent of the students will eventually be removed to India.
He said that of the eight students in Texas he's in contact with, six of them have taken the voluntary departure.
In one case, ICE had contacted a student and told him to report to their office. The student purchased a plane ticket for India and when he showed up for the appointment, he told them he was already planning to leave for India, Reddy said.
Fake university sting is not the first
The students who enrolled at the University of Farmington were told they could work on what are called Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Curricular Practical Training (CPT) programs after they enrolled. The U.S. government says the Farmington university didn't have classes.
Reddy said that there are other universities in the U.S. that have similar programs. He said that DHS should target those universities instead of creating a fake university and arresting the students.
At a previous sting operation in 2016 involving the fake University of Northern New Jersey, students who were enrolled were not arrested. When the U.S. targeted other universities in recent years that were described as basically being diploma mills, the students were also not arrested.
Walls, the ICE spokesman, said the students "who have not been issued a Notice to Appear charging immigration violations are currently not in removal proceedings requiring their appearance before an Immigration Court."