As a young man living in Hyderabad, India, Kumar* wanted nothing more than to get an education in the United States.
He was 22, with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy when he decided to return to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in health care administration. His two semesters as a student at Antioch University in Santa Barbara convinced him that the U.S. educational system was superior to what was available at home, and an advanced degree would make him eligible for a job as a pharmacy manager.
This was Kumar’s chance to touch the American dream: A degree from an accredited American university, along with a few years’ work experience in the U.S., would place him at the top of the job applicant pool in India and make the difference between earning an average salary or an excellent one.
But Kumar’s plans were derailed in the fall of 2009, when he arrived for his first day of classes at Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, Calif. Nothing looked the way it did online: Instead of a bustling campus, he found a bare-bones operation housed in a local public school. There were confused students but no classes. He had already paid about $3,000 upfront for tuition.
When Kumar inquired about the situation with the president of the university, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, with whom he had corresponded with online, Su informed him that classes had been postponed. But when he returned at the promised start time, he was rebuffed again. “She’d say, ‘Why are you coming to disturb me?’ ” Kumar said during an interview arranged by CAST L.A., a nonprofit coalition that provides advocacy and support for victims of human trafficking.
“I saw my friends having a nice, happy life. I thought, ‘This is not why I came to the U.S.’ I was ready for whatever happened.” — Kumar
Things turned more sinister over the next several months as delays and obfuscations continued, until finally, Kumar found himself subsumed by a crisis. Over the course of several years, he would endure lies, threats, indentured servitude, painful physical labor and a prolonged criminal investigation before the dark story that derailed his future would be brought to light during a federal jury trial.
What happened to Kumar is part of a disturbing trend in labor trafficking, a form of modern slavery, in which young, ambitious foreigners are lured to the United States under the false pretense of an educational program and then exploited by fraudulent operators who take their money and restrict their freedom. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, California ranks highest in the nation for these and other types of trafficking schemes: In 2017, there were more than 1,300 human trafficking cases reported, nearly double the number of Texas, the state with the second-highest trafficking rate.
Although these numbers are not nearly as daunting as those in other parts of the world such as Africa and Asia, it is widely believed trafficking cases are under-reported. When they do come to light, they reveal profound physical, psychological and economic trauma.
Today, nearly a decade after he arrived on the Tri-Valley “campus,” Kumar is still dealing with the residual wounds and consequences of his time in captivity, while another 40 million people in similar circumstances are still waiting for their chance at redemption.
Trafficking usually starts with deceit.
Online, Tri-Valley University was exactly what Kumar wanted: accredited, with visiting faculty members from prestigious universities including UC Berkeley and Stanford. Kumar contacted Su and applied to come to the U.S. on an F-1 student visa.
After he arrived in the U.S., an entire semester went by without a single class being held. To temper Kumar’s inquiries and protestations, Su made persuasive excuses. Classes, he was told repeatedly, would begin “soon.” But by January, Kumar became angry and insisted on an explanation. That’s when the bargaining started.
Su told Kumar she would report to immigration authorities that he had enrolled for classes and received A’s, even though this wasn’t true; but in order to maintain a student visa, students must enroll for a minimum of two semesters per year and their host institutions must report their grades. Su also offered Kumar a job working in the administration office — but things worsened from there.
In January 2010, Kumar began working for Su in a job that revealed the extent of her deceptions. He was ordered to enter students’ grades and enrollment status in a mysterious online database. If he received calls from upset students, he was to pass them to Su. He said that if he questioned his work, he was berated and his immigration status was threatened. If he objected, Su intensified his workload, forcing him to do housework and heavy lifting. Then, she docked his pay, claiming he owed “tuition.”
The unaccredited university reportedly grew from 11 students with visas to 939 in a one-year span in 2010, charging students $2,700 in tuition per semester.
When Kumar complained to friends, they encouraged him to stay “enrolled” so as not to jeopardize his future plans. But by the fall of 2010, Kumar had become so depressed and disillusioned, he was willing to risk deportation in order to leave Su. He even considered suicide.
“I was done,” Kumar said. “I couldn’t sleep. I had psychological depression and body pain, and I saw my friends having a nice, happy life. I thought, ‘This is not why I came to the U.S.’ I was ready for whatever happened.”
But he never could have imagined what came next: Two months later, the Department of Homeland Security knocked on Kumar’s door and arrested him. He expected to be deported, but instead was interrogated and outfitted with an ankle bracelet. By March 2011, Kumar was subpoenaed to appear in federal court and charged with visa fraud. If he cooperated, he could avoid jail.
Kumar told the authorities everything he knew about Tri-Valley University and they agreed to drop the charge. But during his disclosures, they discovered that the online database Kumar had been instructed to input enrollment information was a government database. Kumar was charged with conspiracy to commit unauthorized access to a government computer. “There were no options for me at that time,” he said. “I had no choice but to cooperate.”
After testifying at Su’s trial, his charge was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, with a sentence of 30 days’ probation.
At the end of a three-week trial, Su was found guilty of an extensive list of crimes, including wire fraud, mail fraud, visa fraud, alien harboring and money laundering. She was ordered to forfeit $5.6 million, pay nearly $1 million in restitution and sentenced to more than 16 years in federal prison.
Kumar is still in the United States, living in limbo. His criminal record has made it difficult for him to get a job, but after nearly a decade here, prospects in India are even bleaker. “In my head, justice was not served,” Kumar said. “My trafficker intentionally did wrong, but I was trapped.”
Kumar once looked to the United States as a kind of Promised Land. But his experience living here has dimmed that image. He said that with the help of CAST, the anti-trafficking nonprofit, he is beginning to put his life back together. But he is far from where he dreamed he’d be.
“I’m still in the desert,” he said. “But, like, middle of the desert. I think I can see the green blossoms and I’m trying to move toward them. But I still feel the pain in my heart for what I’ve gone through. It’s already a mark on my life.”
* Kumar’s last name is being withheld from this story because he is involved in an ongoing immigration case.