The recent case in which 129 Indian students were taken into custody in the United States illustrates some of the problems.
An ambassador’s primary obligation is to ensure the well-being and welfare of his country’s nationals within his Mission’s jurisdiction. This basic lesson is drilled into every Indian diplomat’s initial training but was often overlooked in times past. Now, in the age of the social media, it is impossible for envoys not to pay full and quick attention to issues concerning Indian communities abroad. Currently, Indian diplomats are also on their toes because external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj responds with alacrity to the needs of Indians in difficulties abroad and expects that Indian embassies do so too. This is how it should be. However, in what circumstances should help be given and of what nature should it be cannot be easily defined in all cases; the recent case in which 129 Indian students were taken into custody in the United States illustrates some of the problems.
Reports indicate that around 600 Indian students in the US joined the Farmington ‘university’ last year. The ‘institution’ advertised itself as a regular place of learning where students could study as well as pursue work. It claimed that it was adhering to US law. However, it was a sting operation of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) section of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE claims that it was meant to wean out students who were willing to break their student visa conditions for they knew that the ‘institution’ was only a ‘pay and stay’ fraudulent scheme. Lawyers for the students and some others claim otherwise.
The story that over a 100 Indian students had been detained by ICE on visa fraud charges broke on January 31st. The very next day the Ministry of External Affairs issued a press note emphasising that government had taken these reports seriously; that Indian diplomatic and consular representations in the US were pro-actively engaged in identifying the concerned students; that they had sought consular access to the students and that everything would be done to assist them.
Two follow up press notes came out in the next four days. They gave details of the action taken by the MEA and Indian representations in the US on the issue. They stressed that the “the highest priority” was attached to the “welfare of the detained students”. Also, that steps were being taken to “ensure and satisfy ourselves about humane and dignified treatment of the Indian students and custom-sensitive dietary and living arrangement for them during the period of their detention”. Finally, assistance was being given to the students “in obtaining legal advice”.
All these steps were timely and would have indicated to the students and their families that they were not out alone in the cold. But would these steps get them the relief that they really want—to get out of the grip of the US legal process. It is here that there are limitations of what the government and, for that matter, any government can do, not because it does not want to, but because of the nature of the international system.
It is highly unlikely if a sting operation of the kind mounted by ICE would be contemplated by an Indian agency. It may not even pass the sanction of Indian courts. That does not seem to be the case in the US for in 2016 a few Indian students were lured by another sting. Its details were spelt out in an answer given to a question in the Rajya Sabha by MOS VK Singh on July 21, 2016 and it is being quoted in extenso:
“According to the US government, in April 2016, the US authorities had arrested brokers, recruiters, and employers, from across the United States who had allegedly conspired with foreign nationals to fraudulently obtain student and foreign worker visas for the latter through a “pay and stay” New Jersey college viz University of Northern New Jersey (UNNJ). This ‘college’ was created and operated as part of the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) enforcement action in this matter. The investigation found that over 1000 students, 306 of whom were Indian nationals, had previously entered the US on F-1 non-immigrant student visas to attend other accredited schools but were found to have knowingly participated in visa fraud by enrolling in UNNJ for the sole purpose of illegally obtaining and/or maintaining their F-1 non-immigrant status”. India had asked the US to ensure that its authorities adhered to the law in taking action against Indian nationals.
All this shows that bonafide Indian students should be vigilant and make wide enquiries so that they avoid such sting operations which are clearly part of US practice. Clearly, US authorities do not believe in the Christian prayer which exhorts that people should not be led into temptation! Indian Missions in the US should also give wide publicity among Indian students that it is dangerous not to check ‘colleges’ that make dubious offers.
Once an Indian national falls foul of the law in any country all that the government and its representations can do is that he receives a fair and just treatment and that he is not being targeted and that he also has good legal representation. In countries with well-established court systems this is not difficult. Major problems emerge in countries where this is not. These test the will and sometimes the clout of a country. These are the cases that require diplomatic and political intervention and can sour bilateral ties.
Certainly, the present Indian students case is not in this category.