The American Dream and the enigma of departure

“The number of Indian students studying in U.S. universities appears to have jumped by almost 30 per cent for the 2014-15 academic year.” Picture shows Indian students at a U.S. university fair in New Delhi.  

In late 2015, Venkat, an Indian national, arrived at a popular West Coast airport in the U.S., brimming with excitement about the degree in computer science that he hoped to pursue at Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU), in Fremont, California.

He had diligently pulled together what he believed was a strong cache of evidence on his college admission and his financial record, including documents citing the value of the farmland his father owned and even his brother’s income certificate.

But a different fate awaited him.

Instead of disembarking the aircraft and travelling on to the NPU campus as he had hoped, Venkat was pulled out of the immigration line and grilled for three hours by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in a well-lit, sparsely furnished room.

During the interrogation, officials even tested his academic proficiency with mathematics equations and computer science concepts, and despite giving “satisfactory answers” to convince the border police of his bona fide admission to NPU, Venkat was handcuffed at the end of the ordeal, deported to India and slapped with a five-year entry ban.

D for Deportation

In an eerie echo of years past, > recent months have witnessed a spurt in deportations of aspiring Indian students seeking entry into two California universities — NPU and Silicon Valley University (SVU), institutions that appear to have come under the scanner of education accreditation authorities.

December 18 was “D-Day” for students travelling to the U.S. with I-20 visas issued by NPU and SVU, and it marked the beginning of mass deportations from the Bay Area to Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport. By mid-January, 2016, a total of 387 students who went through immigration in Hyderabad airport were detained at various points of entry in the U.S. including in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, and deported back to India.

Behind the numbers hides a human story of academic dreams crumbling on faraway shores, and of lives and hopes of ordinary, middle-class families broken despite parents coughing up hefty fees for their starry-eyed children. On the flip side, a series of fatal flaws in the regulation of American higher education appear to have been a root cause of this man-made catastrophe.

Seeking a job, or an education?

Consider first all that went wrong on Indian soil. A review of the evidence from conversations that The Hindu had with deported students in Telangana suggests that Indian applicants to NPU and SVU may have paid insufficient attention to some of the oddities of the admissions process of these two universities.

For example, what strikes the eye in an advertisement placed by NPU is that its minimum Grade Point Average requirement, 3.0, is substantially lower than that prescribed by most of India’s central universities.

Similarly NPU states that clearing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is an admissions requirement, even though it does not say what the passing score is.

Digging deeper into the structure of universities’ programmes, a pattern emerges suggesting that admissions may be on offer for more than just their academic value.

NPU, for instance, boasts options for “part-time an evening/weekend programmes” even as it does not specify whether this is open for international students.

Students currently stationed in the two universities with whom The Hindu still has contact, are certain that they can sustain themselves with the 20 hours of Curricular Practical Training that permits curriculum related work on campus.

Probing deeper, however, it was evident that the students do not only work on campus but at gas stations, retail outlets and even restaurants as part of “CPT” to earn a quick buck ranging between $8-$14, a fact that would be fuel to reignite the debate on immigration amidst fears of Americans losing jobs to foreigners.

When their course of study ends the F1-visa holders are permitted to stay back in the country for one year of Optional Practical Training that allows them to work, and per regulations such work must relate to their field of study, and must be a full-time job with any employer.

Yet an official from the U.S.-India Educational Foundation confided off the record that with institutional aid some students on OPT tend to work in unrelated fields and apply for H-1B visas that permit such work.

(Also read: >Deported students can explore legal options)

Consulate, CBP not on same page

Setting aside the cases where admissions may have been sought expressly for the purpose of entering the U.S. to engage in unrelated, low-paying jobs, it would appear that the U.S.’ consular missions in India are not assessing these visa applicants through the same lens that the CBP is, at points of entry on U.S. soil.

Hyderabad is home to the temple of Chilkur Balaji, who has come to be known popularly as the Visa God, for his power to make devotees clear U.S. consular interviews.

Divine intervention may at least be driving hope, if not yielding results, as the U.S consulate in Hyderabad processed the highest number of F1 visas for the year 2014-15, although it did not reveal the number of visas granted.

The spike in the number of F1 visas processed has only occurred in the last 12 months, and in answer to The Hindu’s queries the consulate replied on January 13, 2016, “Over the last 12 months, student visa applications doubled at the U.S. embassy and consulates in India, especially in Mumbai and Hyderabad, the two busiest posts for student visa applications.”

Along with the skyrocketing visa processing numbers, the number of Indian students studying in U.S universities appears to have jumped, by nearly 30 per cent for the 2014-15 academic year, bringing the total to 132,000.

Positive news though this may be for bilateral bonhomie in the education space, such an upward trend sits uncomfortably alongside the wave of deportations that has struck AP-Telangana students.

Specifically, it raises an awkward question about intra-governmental coordination failure for the U.S.: why have U.S. consulates in India been dishing out visas if CBP has been denying applicants entry at the other end?

Are the State Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) not talking to each other about which universities they consider to have legitimate accreditations, and which ones are suspect? Somewhere along the line, are students being given misleading guidance on what evidence they need to present to cross the U.S. border?

In the face of mounting chaos the U.S. India Education Programme (USIEP) has devised a five-step “foolproof” visa-cum-CBP clearance process that they advise students who approach them to follow.

The process underscores the need for background checks on universities before embarkation, though it is unclear what such an investigation might yield to prospective applicants given that a 2012 printed copy of the Graduate Programme in Engineering and Applied Sciences had two well-placed advertisements of SVU and NPU and both universities still enjoy accreditation to the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and School.

Even if the U.S. government may not have supplied clear guidance on NPU and SVU, the USIEF appears to have realised that something may be going wrong. The Foundation has made it clear that it does not advise students seeking to enroll in MS programmes to opt for vocational training institutes that are usually limited to courses such as nursing.

Institutional history repeats itself

In January 2011, Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, California, was blacklisted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) on the charge that its owners had sought to make millions off the back of foreign students, mostly from Andhra Pradesh.

One year later another U.S. university, Herguan in Sunnyvale, California, > stumbled down the vortex of visa fraud, with its boss Jerry Yang landing a year-long prison sentence for exploiting lax education regulations to enrich himself from the pockets of middle class students from the India.

In both instances Indian students were again trapped in legal limbo, some having to wear ankle radio-tags, some given deportation notices, while others allowed to remain in the country but facing an educational dead-end following the universities’ closures.

It is telling that an extensive 2011 investigation conducted into Tri-Valley and Herguan by the U.S. Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) yielded the names of two other universities that had actually accepted the credits provided by Herguan – SVU and NPU.

In light of the flood of deportations since December it would appear that these two universities have spectacularly fallen afoul of U.S. education regulators and immigration authorities.

Yet, as noted above, they continue to enjoy accredited status, and continue to accept applicants, even if the numbers in January 2016 have anecdotally been noted to have dropped after the deportations began.

Understanding U.S. deportations

Nevertheless the approach of CBP towards deportations suggests that there may have been guidance from the top that they need to watch out for Andhra and Telangana students heading to NPU and SVU.

Surprising though it may seem that CBP has such a “policy,” it is > consistent with a 2013 report in The Hindu which noted that “global intelligence” and “non-verbal communication” signals were very much a part of the arsenal used by immigration officers monitoring the long lines of travellers at most U.S. airports.

The CBP officers gave The Hindu an example of this – when the Spanish economy plummeted during the worst of the 2008 global economic downturn, CBP noted an uptick in the number of would-be immigrants from that country – and not all of them had the right documentation, which likely meant there may have been a similar spike in deportation numbers.

If a similar situation has evolved surrounding students from Andhra and Telangana, then there is little that Air India could do to remedy it, even though earlier this month NPU President Peter Hsieh lashed out at the national carrier for its > refusal to fly 19 students with admission to NPU and SVU from Hyderabad to San Francisco last month.

According to media reports the airline did so after it received a communication from CBP that “the two universities were under scrutiny and students who arrived in San Francisco were not allowed to enter the U.S. and deported back to India.”

The fact that officials also hinted that arriving students did not have the required documentation to pass CBP interviews further hints at the likely poor quality of admissions support provided to students by the universities.

Exploiting loopholes

While it is not clear yet how any potential investigation of NPU and SVU by immigration authorities may evolve, the cases of Tri-Valley and Herguan demonstrate that there are two loopholes in the U.S. regulation of university admissions for international students that are vulnerable to exploitation: first, the wrong government agency may be doing the regulator’s job; and second, there is a lack of sophistication in the way regulators are assessing university quality.

On the first point, it is telling that the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), a repository of expertise in assessing education quality, is not charged with regulating university admissions and this may well be setting the system up for failure.

The roots of this institutional idiosyncrasy go back to the U.S. Patriot Act of 2001, under whose shadow it became imperative to monitor the gates into higher education in the U.S. to prevent potential terrorists from entering the homeland under the guise of academic pursuit, as indeed at least one of the 9/11 suspects did. The George W. Bush administration consequently empowered the DHS to become the gatekeeper for higher education, and in doing so it sidelined the DOE, though it was the better candidate for the job.

Regarding the second question of university quality, the Bush years also witnessed the birth of the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP) and its monitoring tool, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). While the purpose of these systems was to reform the way international student visas were granted, ironically it was through SEVIS that the now-convicted heads of Tri-Valley and Herguan were able to supply Indian recruiters with a superabundance of I-20 forms, the basis on which a student entry visa is ultimately issued by U.S. consulates and embassies abroad.

The 2011 CHE investigation explained why Indian students paid a high price for the weaknesses pointed out by U.S. Government Accountability Office, arguing that some conniving university bosses realised that “India is ripe for exploiting SEVIS loopholes, in part because of the sheer number of students there who want to come to the U.S.,” and Indians were receptive to these pitches by rogue recruiters back home because “although the country has a burgeoning middle class, many of its students still need to work to afford an American university degree”.

To some, all of this may sound like an academic debate, quite literally; yet to hundreds of young Indians, it represents a dream shattered, money squandered, and lives in ruin. To that extent the Government of India would do well to bring regulatory reform in U.S. universities into the bilateral agenda.



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