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Tri-Valley: TANA, consulate pitch in with legal help

February 26, 2011 02:19 IST
"After a long time, I had good sleep," said Srilekha Kumari*, a Tri-Valley University student whose ankle radio tag was removed February 9, after 22 days.

Kumari, whose father is a businessman in Hyderabad, is the first person in her family to come abroad for higher studies. She said she arrived in the United States in May last year to study health-care management.

"It was a shock when I learned about the Tri-Valley University (being a 'sham')," Kumari said. "There were only online classes. Susan Su (Tri-Valley founder) always said the campus is relocating so we will be having class over there soon. But two semesters passed and nothing happened, so I was planning to get a transfer to another college, when this happened."

She said her cousin in India asked her to meet Jayaram Komati, president, Telugu Association of North America. She along with her roommate--who too was radio tagged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials--met Komati, who suggested they meet attorney Kalpana V Peddibhotla in San Francisco's Bay Area.

"I am really thankful to uncle (Komati) and TANA. We got great support from him," said Kumari. "My parents too are supportive; I want to stay back and continue my studies."

Komati said TANA has provided two attorneys, Peddibhotla and Ashwani Bhakhri, to help Tri-Valley students.

"I am happy the kids are free," Komati said. "We have helped the students and encouraged them to connect to lawyers."

February 17, ICE officials removed the ankle radio tags of two more Tri-Valley students. "I got them off the hook," said Bhakhri. He said he told ICE officials that the students are "victims of the system, and they need fair treatment and are not going anywhere."  ICE officials also returned the students' passports.

"My clients are not leaving the country and have not done anything wrong, they are not criminals," said Bhakhri, who fellt both the US and Indian governments should issue comprehensive guidelines for the affected students. Bhakhri said he told ICE officials:  'If you get fair treatment, a lot of other students will come forward and might help because they are the victims of the huge scam.'

Ashok Kolla, chair, student committee, TANA, said last week that seven of the 18 students radio tagged had been relieved of their ankle irons. Peddibhotla said radio tags being removed is the first step in a long battle.

"The proceeding is not yet over... We are still working with them (ICE) to get the case terminated," she said. "These students  are victims and should be treated with respect and dignity. They should be able to preserve their rights to continue their studies in the United States."

She is handling the cases of eight more radio-tagged students and others who attended the legal camp organized February 5 by Susmita Gongulee Thomas, India's consul general in San Francisco.

"TANA took a very big lead here, which I am happy to see," said Peddibhotla. "They understood very early on that this is a legal issue and also understood that students need to get their rights protected. These two students (whose ankle radio tags were removed) were already referred to me by TANA and the association is also providing some of the students with financial resources. Even the South Asian Bar Association is trying to see what kind of pro bono service their attorneys can provide. This case is complicated and requires experienced attorneys." She said she had reduced her fees for affected students.

"I am also working with the Northern California South Asian Bar Association to see what kind of advocacy we can do about it on a national scale," she added.  Consul General Thomas told the Press Trust of India on February 7: 'We received a message from ICE today in which they indicated that they would consider the possibility of reinstatement of their (students') visa status through I-539.'  The I-539 is a form the USCIS uses for visa extension and change of immigration status for foreign nationals visiting the US who want to extend their stay.

Bhakhri said the future was still uncertain. The question was, he said, "Are they (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) going to approve I-539 or not?"

California-based attorney Raj Akula said students should contact an attorney before contacting or calling ICE. He also advised they may want to convert to dependent visas. "I don't believe that a dependent visa (application) will be rejected," Akula said. "My reasoning is based on the fact that it is dependent on the primary visa holder and as long as all the status requirements are maintained by the primary visa holder, the dependent visa should not be a problem."

Though radio-tag-free students heaved a sigh of relief, many have been issued Notices To Appear.

"I am feeling free, but I have an NTA to appear in August," said one student, wondering how he would support himself till then. Bhakhri said he was planning to approach ICE to allow the students a work permit to support themselves. ICE agents can issue such permits during ongoing investigations, he said, for a year; and there is the possibility of extension.

Ritu Jha