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No respite for Tri valley students

February 08, 2011 03:55 IST
About 60 students of the Pleasanton, California-based Tri-Valley University--shut down by federal authorities for alleged visa fraud--met India's consul general in San Francisco February 1, requesting for help in finding a way out from the nightmare they say has fallen on them.

"We want the consulate to help us in getting the students' SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) back. We went there to ask for our SEVIS to be released. That is what we are asking every time," said Ashok Kolla, chair, student committee, Telugu Association of North America. He said the consulate had advised the students to not speak to the media, because, they were told, 'There is a chance they (Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials) might catch you.'

Another student, who got a transfer from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to Tri-Valley, said the consul general had advised them not to talk to the media.

Consul General Susmita G Thomas had a closed-door meeting with the students. Journalists were asked to stay outside. After the two-hour meeting, reporters were allowed to meet Thomas.
"The students are worried and we are pushing hard," she said. "We have kept our doors open and we are trying to keep our negotiation going."

Despite four meetings with ICE officials and many prominent voices of indignation--including from senior Indian government officials like Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao--the radio-monitoring devices were not taken off from the students' ankles.

Thomas said, "We are also trying on that issue, but it is the part of their (ICE officials') job and they have not yet agreed to take it (the leg irons) off. We are organizing a legal aid camp (February 5) and it would be free where they will have civil and criminal lawyers who would be able to advise these people free of cost."

She said she was hopeful that innocent students could be given transfers and those who were aware that Tri-Valley was a front might get deported. She said she had told American officials that Tri-Valley had provided the students with Curricular Practical Training--employment that is part of the students' curriculum--and Optional Practical Training, or off-campus employment a student on an F-1 visa can take up.

"So, technically, it is not the students (who are at fault); these students--like many of us--do not know the US laws," said Thomas.

Tri-Valley had 1,555 active F-1 students in the 2010 fall semester, out of which 95 percent were of Indian origin. Only 120 students have contacted
the consulate; one reason could be that most are apprehensive.

"They should come out in the open," Thomas said. "We are trying to assure everybody it is better for them to come out."
Many students are scared of even calling up the ICE helpline. "We fear to call because it asks for your name and then they will call you back. It could be a trick," said a student.

Prakash Khatri, former immigration ombudsman at the Department of Homeland Security, who runs the Khatri Law Firm, said the key is to sit down with ICE and understand what the issues are. Getting the leg irons off will not be easy, he added.
"I do not think anybody has asked what these students want," Khatri told rediff.

"We have to look into the issue as some of them have invested in the US and are very qualified. We've got to figure out how to deal with this issue and how many types of students are there. I do not think the Indian government will be able to do that, because they won't be able to present effectively these individuals. They need to get somebody who can liaise on behalf of the government of India and Indian students who are here on an awkward situation. The Indian consul general is not equipped to deal specifically with US law. Their (consul generals') role is to make sure their citizens are not mistreated. They should hire a consultant in a situation like this where 1,500 Indian nationals are involvedÂ…. The real challenge here is to get to ICE and give them the proposal. It's complicated."

Virginia Kice, western regional communications director and spokesperson, ICE, said ICE Director John Morton spoke on the phone last week with Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar regarding the Tri-Valley investigation. Kice said that the civil forfeiture complaint alleges that Tri-Valley was a 'sham' and the US government has canceled the visas of those who held visas tied to the school.

"All of those visa holders will be treated fairly under the laws of the US, with a full range of procedural protections," said Kice.
Susan Su, chief executive officer, Tri-Valley, said in an e-mail: "I think that: the 'sham' claim is indeed a 'sham'."

Based on our discussions with attorneys, we did suggest to students who have not received the NTAs to avoid speaking to the media without first consulting with attorneys. You would appreciate that most of the students are in a vulnerable situation and till the time things become clear, they might say something which can be later used against them or other students.

We have also told them that it is their wish whether they want to speak to the media or not. A large number of them have already spoken to different media outlets already..
Ritu Jha in Pleasanton, Los Angeles