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Feds Probe Calif. ‘Sham University’ for Visa Fraud

SAN FRANCISCO – The government of India is urging the United States to show leniency toward Indian students who were enrolled at a “sham university” in California that U.S. authorities say was a front for illegal immigration.

The U.S. attorney’s office alleges the owner of Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton used the unaccredited school to charge foreigners millions of dollars in tuition fees and help them obtain student visas to stay in the U.S.

Officials at Tri-Valley did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

There were 1,555 students enrolled at Tri-Valley last fall and about 95 percent of them were from India, according to a complaint filed Jan. 19 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Many of those students, who took Tri-Valley courses online, could be deported if they are found to be in violation of their immigration status.

Indian officials say the students are being “treated like criminals” by U.S. Immigration Enforcement and Customs agents even though they were issued valid U.S. visas by American consular officials in India.

“I don’t think any of them had any idea this was a sham university,” said Susmita Gongulee Thomas, consul general of India in San Francisco. “I don’t think any of them had the motivation to defraud any rules of the U.S. government … These students came here genuinely to improve their prospects and they should not be criminalized or victimized.”

Students told Indian consulate officials that they were searched, treated rudely and handcuffed before being taken into immigration offices for questioning, Thomas said.

Many have been forced to wear ankle bracelets to track their movements with radio frequency signals, and they must report to immigration officials regularly while they go through deportation proceedings, Gongulee Thomas said.

Indian officials are asking the U.S. government to stop requiring the students to wear the ankle monitors.

“They felt threatened and intimidated by the ICE officials,” Thomas said. “We in India do not treat anyone other than criminals with anything that resembles ankle bracelets or handcuffs.”

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday the use of radio monitors is widespread and standard for investigations and “does not necessarily imply guilt or suspicion of criminal activity.”

“It allows for freedom of movement and is a positive alternative to confinement during a pending investigation,” Crowley said.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Agency is establishing a help line for the Indian students affected by the school’s closure, Crowley said.

Indian officials are asking that the students be allowed to transfer to other U.S. universities or be allowed to return to India without being deported, which would prevent them from returning to the U.S. and hurt their employment prospects back home, Thomas said.

Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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