Life in jail had not been kind to Paras. After an anxious night that left his bed drenched with sweat, he woke up to the sound of an officer running a baton through the iron grill of his room. It was time to brush his teeth and have breakfast which was usually a cereal with milk. It was just the third day of his five-year sentence and he was looking for ways to kill himself.
He had let his parents down. They had sacrificed so much to send him to the US. His father, who was on the verge of retiring, had broken down when he heard the news of his son’s arrest. To see a strong man like him feel helpless pained Paras. His mother was so shocked that she struggled to find the right words. “We’ll get you out, don’t worry. Stay strong,” she had said on the solitary phone conversation he was allowed before getting arrested.
It wasn’t like he was a real criminal. He hadn’t killed anyone, he hadn’t robbed a bank and he had certainly not caused any harm. Still, the law placed him in the same jail as people who did commit those heinous crimes. Not only was his great American dream over, he was going to find it difficult to resume life in India too. His only mistake – he became greedy about an offer that was given to him months ago.
After completing his masters, he was worried about his visa expiring. To his delight, his friend Ashish (who was in the same boat) told him about University of Farmington in USA which allowed students to get a work permit from Day 1 after enrollment. What’s more? Students didn’t need to attend classes or give exams and the tuition fee was reasonable too. Initially, Paras thought the offer was too good to be true. So, he looked up the place online.
They had an active Facebook page and their founder was Dr. Ali Milani – someone who knew four languages. Its website description read, “Located in the heart of the automotive and advanced manufacturing center of Southeast Michigan, the University of Farmington provides students from throughout the world a unique educational experience. Our dynamic business administration and STEM curriculum allows students to rapidly apply their knowledge; preparing them to succeed in an ever-globalizing economy.”
Along with Ashish, Paras enrolled in the university and started applying for jobs in USA. Little did he know that it was all part of a trap set by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They had launched a sting operation in 2015 called ‘Paper Chase’. After all, University of Farmington had no classrooms, no campus, no teachers and its founder Dr. Ali Milani wasn’t even a real person. He existed only on a fake LinkedIn ID.
All of this was not known to Paras. He called up the university and asked, “Can I join the university without having to attend classes or give exams and extend my work visa?” An undercover agent posing as a university official told him that it was possible. Paras felt on top of the world but his party was cut short soon.
Along with several other students, he was arrested for immigration fraud. He also faced a penalty up to $250,000. Known as entrapment, this is a method used to lure a person into committing a crime. Some may call it a controversial tactic but it’s perfectly legal.
Paras remembered the many months he spent celebrating the new lease of life he was given thanks to the fake university. He remembered the car he bought six months after his new job. He would go for long drives on it while listening to Bruce Springsteen or Lucky Ali. The ride was so much better than the Hyundai Santro he drove back in India and he maintained it like his life depended on it. He thought about the many parties he threw at his bachelor pad in Detroit. “I paid $8,500 in tuition and I am earning $100,000 per annum. To be honest, it’s a steal,” he told his friend Ashish on one such occasion.
“Yes man, imagine having to go back to India and slogging our asses off for peanuts,” Ashish said.
“Sometimes I think about Dr. Milani - he is just too kind. He even sent biryani to my house the other day when I complained about missing my parents,” Paras opined.
“Oh yes, he is the best. One day I would like to meet him in person,” Ashish said.
Those days were long gone now and they seemed like a cruel joke. The tasteless cereal, the lack of entertainment, the overpowering shame – these were his new companions in jail. He felt thankful that he didn’t accept any of the marriage offers he was getting from back home. What a disaster it would have been if his new wife found out that she had just married a criminal.
“You new here? What are you in for?” an older man of 45 asked him after sitting next to him on the breakfast table.
“Immigration fraud,” Paras told him in a disinterested manner.
“Hahaha, you guys love America too much, is it?” the man asked him.
Paras didn’t like the sarcasm and got up from his table without finishing his bowl of cereal. He had not been very religious but he decided to pray that morning.
As time passed, Paras adjusted to his life in prison in a better manner. He was given access to the prison library for his good behaviour and spent a lot of time engrossed in books. In the 18th month, during a conversation with his lawyer, he was told that he could go back to India. He would not be able to come back to the US for at least 10 years after that. Paras accepted the deal and flew back to his home in Mumbai.
He picked up the pieces and found a decent job, but life in prison had left huge scars on his mind. He had medication for anxiety and at night, he often dreamed that he was still in prison. “Thank god, I am out,” he would tell himself after waking up.
Disclaimer: The following is a work of fiction inspired by true events. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.