Attorney: Fake university sting by ICE was entrapment

Website of the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Prosecutors say it is a fake university set up by the Dept. of Homeland Security.
Website of the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Prosecutors say it is a fake university set up by the Dept. of Homeland Security.

DETROIT – About 10 years ago, Phanideep Karnati emigrated from India to the U.S. on an H1-B visa in search of the American dream.

He became an IT engineer, was earning a masters degree at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and is today married with two sons, ages 2 and 9.

But on Monday, the 35-year-old Kentucky man appeared in shackles and a prisoner's jumpsuit in a federal courtroom in Detroit, arraigned on charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit as a recruiter for a fake university in Farmington Hills, Michigan, created by U.S. law enforcement. A not-guilty plea was entered for him by Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen, who ordered him released on a $10,000 unsecured bond.

Karnati was one of five defendants who appeared Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Detroit, and one of eight foreign nationals charged with visa fraud.

Prosecutors allege the students recruited hundreds of other students to enroll at the University of Farmington as part of a "pay to stay" scheme where foreign students could remain in the U.S. while working. The university was created by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to lure in more than 600 students, of which 130 were arrested last week on civil immigration charges.

Feb. 3: India urges U.S. to release foreign students detained by ICE in fake university sting

In a separate criminal case, eight immigrants were charged with being recruiters, taking kickbacks and cash in exchange for referring students to the University of Farmington.

Speaking after the arraignment, Karnati's attorney, John Brusstar, criticized the government's allegations and sting operation.

"It is unfair for the government to set up something like this to entrap people," said Brusstar.

Karnati's wife, two sons and other supporters were in the courtroom. She held her 2-year-old son as the attorney described how the family feels.

"They love this country, but are saddened by what happened," Brusstar said.

University of Farmington office in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Photo taken in 2017.
University of Farmington office in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Photo taken in 2017.

Six of the eight defendants were arrested in Michigan. Five appeared in court Monday and one, Prem Rampeesa, 26, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is requesting an interpreter and is scheduled to appear in court later this week.

In addition to Karnati, the others who appeared in court Monday were: Santosh Sama, 28, of Fremont, California; Avinash Thakkallapally, 28, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Aswanth Nune, 26, of Atlanta.

They all face similar charges, and not guilty pleas were entered for all of them by Magistrate Whalen.

Except for Karnati, who is on a work visa, the defendants will not be released from jail because they have immigration holds since they are undocumented since the U.S. revealed the university they were enrolled in was fake. Their defense attorneys consented to their detention since they would face detention by immigration authorities.

Nune's attorney, Michael Rataj, said after the arraignment that Nune had moved to the U.S. in 2017 on a student visa. He had worked in technology fields for Samsung and a subsidiary or Sprint, Rataj said.

Jan. 30: Feds set up fake university in Michigan to nab undocumented immigrants

The students enrolled at the fake university with the intent to obtain jobs under a student visa program called CPT (Curricular Practical Training) that allows students to work in the U.S., prosecutors said.

Defense attorneys say such programs are legitimate and that the U.S. tricked the students in joining the University of Farmington.

The university had said it was legitimate and approved by the Department of Homeland Security. The department had listed the university as a legitimate place for foreign students, said immigration attorneys in contact with the students.

Like Karnati, many of the students who have been detained are from India and are in STEM fields. Out of the 130 detained by ICE, 129 are from India and one is Palestinian. All of the eight alleged recruiters criminally charged also are from India.

Karnati and others at the university have roots in the Telugu-speaking region of India. The American Telugu Association says it is working to help those arrested.

India's government has urged the U.S. to release the 129 students arrested on immigration charges, noting that their cases are different from the eight criminally charged.

Follow Niraj Warikoo on Twitter: @nwarikoo

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Attorney: Fake university sting by ICE was entrapment