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The Third Degree

A fake university bust in the US nets Indian students. Were they just victims?

The Third Degree
AFP (From Outlook, February 14, 2011)
The Third Degree

Closed Options

  • Leave the US voluntarily to escape the 5-year ban, to avoid the visa violations case.
  • Transfer to other universities. Not easy as TVU students are suspect in their eyes
  • Get an employer to apply for an H1-B or work visa. But H1-B visa quota for year is full up already.


Lata was barely married a few months when she persuaded her husband to let her shift to the United States for a higher degree. Her parents dug deep into their savings to fulfil their daughter’s dream. Lata (not her real name) was admitted to a university in America, but the course didn’t interest her. A friend recommended a new university in Pleasanton, California. In September ’09, Lata was admitted to Tri-Valley University (TVU). It was a dream come true.

Last fortnight, on January 19, Lata’s dream turned into a nightmare. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency conducted raids on TVU and declared it a sham. Student accounts uphold the claims of ICE officials. For instance, Lata had never visited the university; her academic life had been confined to attending online lectures in a virtual classroom. Lata told Outlook, “I regret coming to the US. I will never trust these Americans again.”

Lata is one of the nearly 1,500 students affected by the TVU scam. A majority of them are Indians, mostly from Andhra Pradesh. About 100 of them had been issued visas from US consulates in India. Many others had transferred from other universities. All those visas are now invalid. The ICE has initiated proceedings against some, confiscating passports, issuing Notices to Appear (NTA), and asking them to produce airline tickets as proof of their intention to leave the US.

TV grab of radio-tagged TVU student

But nothing has stoked public fury in India as the American decision to make a clutch of students wear the humiliating electronic monitoring anklet bracelets, a tracking device to ensure they didn’t disappear. Jyothi Kumari Verma, who transferred to TVU from another US university in September 2010, says she and others were “horrified with the video footage of students being fitted with tracker devices like criminals”. The US embassy in Delhi clarified that electronic tagging is standard procedure and doesn’t imply guilt or suspicion of criminal activity.

Such talk can scarcely soothe the scarred students who say their career has been marred by an education scam they aren’t to blame for. TVU got its SEVIS (student and exchange visitor information system) approval on February 17, ’09. The students, therefore, believed it had the government’s seal of approval. Among aspiring Telugu students, TVU’s reputation was based not on its academic credentials, but because it was considered an “easy” university to get into. The fees were low, and discounts were offered to those who referred students.

TVU had other advantages as well. For one, it offered CPT (curricular practical training) authorisation at the start of the course—that is, allowing students to work even as they study. This flouts the law which states that students must be enrolled on a full-time basis for one academic year before becoming eligible for CPT. Again, TVU offered mainly online courses, though the law disallows those on F1 or student visa from taking such courses. This arrangement enabled students to work for US companies on a contract basis. No wonder, many in Andhra looked upon TVU as an easy ticket to the US—they were shown on paper to be living in California but were in reality working elsewhere in the US.

Ironically, it was this modus operandi which alerted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the scam. Its suspicions were aroused when it stumbled upon a TVU student returning from India at the Chicago airport. Ordinarily, his port of entry should have been California where he was enrolled. On questioning, the student revealed that he had taken advantage of TVU’s illegal offer of CPT to online students to work part-time in Chicago.

Not all students turned to TVU for securing jobs. Take Sunil, who like most students interviewed for this article declined to give his last name. A Hyderabadi, he couldn’t work as his status was that of a spouse dependent on his wife’s F1 visa. Bored, he decided to study, and applied to TVU. “There were many Indians and the weather is nice in California,” explains Sunil, who says he can’t cope with the winter chill of Maryland where he lives.

Once admitted to a US university, students receive an I-20 document, which they must present at the US embassy or consulate in their home country to receive an F1 visa. All TVU students were issued I-20s and were granted USCIS (US citizenship and immigration services) approval. They now face deportation, even those who were handed out F1 visas after March 2010, the month investigations started against TVU.

A few students have approached ICE and DHS to inquire about their fate. Immigration attorney Sheela Murthy says that’s the last thing they should be doing. “You don’t want to go into the den of a bloodthirsty tiger that hasn’t eaten in days,” Murthy told Outlook. “US consulates were issuing the visas, ICE had given SEVIS designation to TVU and now they are telling students that they should have known that the school was a fraud and on their own figured out the laws?”

Harried students are now mulling the options before them. They could leave the US voluntarily and avoid a five-year entry ban that comes with deportation. They could also transfer to other schools or find a job and ask an employer to file for H1-B or work visa. But other universities say they can’t be accepted because their status is of illegal immigrants. Nor can they apply for an H-1B visa as the quota for this year has already been exhausted.

The story appears a little different from the perspective of American officials, who insist some students were complicit in the TVU scam. There’s enough traffic on the internet to suggest that TVU was preferred because, as one person notes, it provides “a perfect way to bypass the visa process!” Says Murthy, “They feel that all of them knew they were not attending a legitimate school.”

Considering the implausibility of sifting the innocent from the guilty, TVU’s students fear a grim future. Like Lata, many haven’t informed their family in India about the crisis. “They will be shattered,” Lata said, her voice strained by emotion. “I can’t return to India after spending all this money and time. How can I return without a degree?”

It’s truly an American dream gone sour, but then the scam also speaks for the craze among Indians to study in American colleges not known for their educational excellence. This is a worrying change from the time when the best brains went to the best universities in the US.

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