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U.S. set up a fake university to nab immigration fraud suspects

"The well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused," a U.S. attorney said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement set up a fake university in the Detroit area to nab suspects alleged to have recruited undocumented immigrants who wanted to use student visas as legal cover for their time in the United States.

Eight suspects were indicted Monday by a grand jury on suspicion of visa fraud and "harboring aliens for profit," according to the allegations, which were unsealed Wednesday.

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations arm in 2015 established a fictional college, the University of Farmington, as part of an undercover operation, according to the indictments.

"The University was not staffed with instructors/educators; it had no curriculum, no actual classes nor any educational activities being conducted therein," the indictment states.

Wednesday's indictments grew out of an alleged conspiracy that began in 2017, the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan said in a statement.

"According to the indictments, from approximately February 2017 through January 2019, the defendants, a group of foreign citizens, conspired with each other and others to fraudulently facilitate hundreds of foreign nationals in illegally remaining and working in the United States by actively recruiting them to enroll into a metro Detroit private university that, unbeknownst to the conspirators, was operated by HSI special agents as part of an undercover operation," the statement reads.

Bill Ong Hing of the University of San Francisco School of Law said he's never come across such a sting operation in his decades as an immigration scholar.

"There is this concept in criminal law called entrapment where people are not inclined to do something criminal but they’re presented with something that's not proper by law enforcement," said Hing, author of "American Presidents, Deportations, and Human Rights Violations: From Carter to Trump."

The Detroit-area case comes amid a raging debate about immigration enforcement, with President Trump demanding that Congress begin funding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and critics pointing out that those who overstay their visas outnumber those who cross that border illegally.

However, it's not clear if the indictments are a response to that criticism, since the fake school was launched during the Obama administration, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"We are all aware that international students can be a valuable asset to our country, but as this case shows, the well-intended international student visa program can also be exploited and abused," the U.S. Attorney in Detroit, Matthew Schneider, said in a statement.

Steve Francis, a special agent in Detroit, said in a statement that his team "uncovered a nationwide network that grossly exploited U.S. immigration laws."

The suspects recruited hundreds of students living in the country illegally and sought to help them remain stateside by working with the university to enroll them and provide fraudulent evidence they were compliant with visa regulations, the indictments allege. The recruiters were in some cases paid thousands of dollars by agents to help enroll the students, according to the indictments.

The suspects were identified as Barath Kakireddy, 29, of Lake Mary, Florida; Suresh Kandala, 31, of Culpeper, Va.; Phanideep Karnati, 35, of Louisville, Ky.; Prem Rampeesa, 26, of Charlotte, N.C.; Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, Calif.; Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pa.; Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta; and Naveen Prathipati, 26, of Dallas.

The defendants could each face five years in federal prison if they're convicted, the U.S. Attorney's office said.