On January 18, 2011 the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) invalidated all student visas issued on behalf of Tri Valley University in Pleasanton, California. At this point, it looks like the university was a sham, run as a business after defrauding the US government into granting authorization to issue I-20’s to enable foreign students to obtain F-1 visas and obtain nonimmigrant student status in the United States. Nearly all of TVU’s students hailed from Andhra Pradesh, a province in South India.

Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has promised to use good judgment, evaluating each student’s situation on a case by case basis. In the weeks after January 18, some students were detained, others were placed with GPS monitoring bracelets on their ankles, and still others have been let alone.

There is a lot of speculation on the Internet as to what can or should be done. Unfortunately, as this is an ongoing and developing situation, hard facts are hard to come by.

ICE has indicated on its website that TVU students are encouraged (if not forced) to call in and give their contact information and they would be told what options they had. To date, it seems there are 3 options: 1) go back home (with no penalty, although that’s somewhat unclear), 2) reinstate F-1 with another school, or 3) voluntary departure. Some students have been placed in removal proceedings. As a general rule, it is somewhat troubling that ICE asks all the students to report all their information in the absence of clear guidance or assurance that they will not be criminally associated with the fraud.

The concern I have as a criminal immigration lawyer is that the student body of TVU is a vulnerable group that may become swept up in the allegations of fraud. Remember, because immigration benefits are not rights, they can be taken away much more easily. One potential consequence is that once the students leave the US, their names may be submitted to SEVP’s counterterrorism and criminal exploitation unit. Result? Not coming back to the US, because it will be impossible to secure any type of visa.

Obviously this is an ongoing investigation. We do not yet know where it will go, or what picture the fraud will finally take. One catch phrase that seems to be repeated in this case is “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” My concern is: will the US Attorney’s Office and/or ICE hold the students of TVU criminally responsible for getting duped by Dr. Susan Su’s allegedly “sham university”? There are several troubling details: the fact that a large number of students (more than half) were registered in SEVIS as living in one apartment in Sunnyvale, California. And according to the forfeiture complaint filed in US District Court for the Northern District of California, TVU employed a kickback referral scheme wherein a referring student would collect 20% of a referee student’s tuition payment, thus creating a large pyramid scheme. And there is also the fact that nearly all (95+%) of TVU’s students hail from Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh, and that Anji Reddy and Rama Krishta Karra – two of the TVU staff now being blamed by Dr. Su – are also Telugu speaking.

The US Attorney’s Office will want to know how much students “knew.” Remember – just because the students of TVU (or, for that matter, the Government of India) believe the students to be victims of an elaborate fraud does not mean the US government sees it the same way.

At our office we have been receiving calls requesting attorney presence at “interviews” being requested by ICE. And from reading posts made by my colleagues at the immigration bar, it would seem that the purpose of these ICE interviews, at least in part, is to investigate: to find out how TVU operated, how money was collected, and how much people knew. I believe there is a real risk that the more information the student body gives, the less likely it is that the US Attorney’s Office will believe that they are victims.

There are real risks in this very unfortunate situation. If you have been contacted by DHS ICE or other law enforcement, do not agree to meet them without a lawyer present. Ideally you need to have a lawyer familiar with both criminal and immigration law. Remember that ICE is not necessarily interested in helping you remain in the United States.

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