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Before the coronavirus outbreak, foreign students at the LISMA Language Center in Midtown were already up against a ticking clock.
Last month, the language school lost its federal certification to issue documents that allow visa-holding students to remain in the country legally while taking classes there.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), run through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, gave the West 32nd Street school and other branches in Queens and Long Island until April 14 to allow students to transfer to another SEVP-certified school, change visas or leave the U.S.
Now, teachers say they’ve been fired. Multiple staff members and former pupils told THE CITY that what they called misleading information and intimidation from leaders at the school have stalled many students’ attempts to find new places to learn. Students say their immigration statuses have been jeopardized just as the COVID-19 crisis is locking down New York.
One student who asked to be identified only as Neth said she has been trying for weeks to get her paperwork properly transferred from LISMA, only to have the school eliminate her from a federal system that tracks student visa-holders studying in the U.S.
‘Find it in Your Heart’
Neth called and visited the school in an effort to reverse the move — which puts her “out of status” without the legal right to be in the U.S. — but said she has been stonewalled.
“You’re not giving us a good answer, and I keep begging — I said, ‘Please, find it in your heart,’” she said, recalling what she told LISMA staff earlier this month. “Give us an answer because coronavirus is around the corner. Anytime, you will be shut down.”
As of Friday, the Midtown school has closed and all teachers have been let go, according to emails obtained by THE CITY from the school’s administration. For remaining students, all instruction will be conducted online, the emails say.
ICE said on March 18 it would postpone most immgration enforcement actions due to the spread of the virus. But the agency offered few details or a timeline.
On Valentine’s Day, LISMA lost its ability to issue I-20 forms, which allow a school to legally host visa-holding students. When THE CITY visited the school a few days later, LISMA’s director, Jenny Lee, said only that the school was “changing our name” and no students’ visas were in jeopardy.
“You have the wrong information,” she said.
In a subsequent email exchange, Lee refused to answer further questions from THE CITY.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” she wrote. “We are not jeopardizing any students.”
The ICE decertification also applied to two LISMA schools in Flushing, Queens and Albertson, N.Y., run by the Long Island Conservatory, the umbrella company behind the Manhattan campus.
All three locations were operated by different directors, education department records show, but were listed together on the conservatory’s website.
In a March 11 email, the conservatory wouldn’t comment on its federal certification loss, saying only that the school is “in the middle of separating our music conservatory from the language centers.” The email message promised that all international students would be “safe in their status before April 14.”
‘Don’t Want Problems’
As news of the decertification came down in February, Lee and other staff at the Koreatown school stuck to the same message, teachers and students told THE CITY: The school was only changing names.
LISMA would now become a part of NYGC, they said, or New York General Consulting, another Midtown language school. NYGC did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
“You might be worried about we’re close [sic],” a Feb. 20 email from a LISMA staffer to one student read. “However, you don’t need to worry about it at all. We’re already issuing your new I-20 under the new name of school (NYGC), so you can simply think our school name is changed.”
Schools officials tried to lure students to NYGC — and retaliated against those who transferred elsewhere by terminating them from the ICE-run Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which tracks foreign students legally in the U.S., several students told THE CITY.
Under SEVP rules, students attending schools that have been decertified have the right to transfer to whatever visa-eligible school they wish to attend.
But many LISMA students never had much of a choice, pushed by their advisors to transfer to NYGC, former students said.
“Some students barely speak English, they don’t know what’s really going on, so they just sign whatever the school gives them,” said one former LISMA student who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And if you ask them, what did you sign? They’re like, ‘I have no idea. They just gave me paper and I signed.’”
He and half a dozen other students who spoke with THE CITY chose not to transfer to NYGC — and said LISMA wiped their records from SEVIS within days.
One of those students, who asked to be identified only as John, said the message from Lee and her staff was obvious.
“She basically threatened all of us,” he said. If they wanted to go elsewhere, she said she couldn’t guarantee their attendance record from LISMA would allow it, John said.
“You might get terminated [from SEVIS],” he recalled her saying. “But if you transfer to NYGC, everything will be okay.”
Another student who contacted THE CITY by email said the school staff did “not want me to release my records to other institution different [than] NYGC,” the message read, and said she had been terminated as of Feb. 27.
Asked for more detail, the student was too worried to elaborate.
“Sorry they are doing bad things here and everybody is scare,” she wrote. “No contact me no more … don’t want problems.”
Lee did not respond to an inquiry by THE CITY about the students’ allegations.
ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell said that, as of March 18, more than 260 students had transferred out of the three LISMA locations. Nearly 150 of them have gone to NYGC, she said. The agency confirmed at least 26 LISMA students have been cut off from SEVIS in recent weeks.
There are several reasons ICE names why a foreign student may be eliminated from SEVIS, including having a job, being expelled from school or not showing up for class.
Students who spoke with THE CITY said the reason given for the ending of their visa status was “failure to maintain attendance.” But all were adamant they went to class regularly.
Proving that, however, is nearly impossible.
John said attendance at his LISMA classes was kept on a single sheet of paper that was often “wiped out” from time to time. Staff at the LISMA office on West 32nd Street told him on March 12 they couldn’t help him get any attendance records, he said.
“I was really desperate, telling them, you know, ‘Why me? Why are you doing this to me?’ Because I know that with the coronavirus and everything, they might close down and if I don’t get the records, I have nothing to show,” he said.
“The school has all the power over me,” he added.
He has filed a complaint with the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision, the division of the New York State Department of Education that regulates career training and language schools.
Several of his classmates did as well, and say a BPSS investigator has been in touch with them.
A spokesperson for the BPSS confirmed the department went to the school and is speaking with students, but stressed the education department has no direct role in immigration issues. The agency can help primarily with getting refunds for students unable to complete their classwork.
For Neth, the hundreds of dollars she may be owed is the least of her concerns. She had been planning to go to culinary school, find a sponsor and a job. Now, all of that is on hold.
“How can you plan if you’re terminated?” she said.
This marked the second time within a year Neth has been enrolled at a language school in crisis. Last year, she was one of the students affected by the abrupt decertification and shutdown of the American Language Communication Center, or ALCC, in Midtown.
In that case, as THE CITY reported at the time, the owners of the school shuttered its doors with no notice, leaving staff stranded, visa-dependent students scrambling — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts.
Amid the confusion, the language school industry is responding to the spread of coronavirus, along with so many other New York businesses. Both BPSS and ICE have given temporary permission for language classes to be taught online.
Emails from Lee and other LISMA staff obtained by THE CITY say LISMA will run online-only instruction starting this week, including conducting a previously scheduled midterm exam. NYGC, too, posted a notice that it would move to virtual classrooms.
But as the school is going virtual, all LISMA teachers were fired — and will only be paid half of what they’re owed for their final week’s work, teachers told THE CITY.
On Friday, LISMA instructors received an email from Ginie Hong, a LISMA administrator, saying the school has been “experiencing financial difficulty,” the message read, and would shut its doors “for the rest of the 2020 Spring semester.”
“This also requires LISMA to terminate all teachers as future plans are indefinite at this time,” Hong wrote. “With a heavy heart, we truly regret to inform you of such bad news during these challenging times for everyone.”
She said all teachers will receive half of their original salary for the week of March 16.
One teacher who spoke with THE CITY said the message came as a shock because, up until just before the email went out, staff had been told they would be teaching classes virtually. Now, they can’t get answers — and their LISMA email accounts have been deactivated, the teacher said.
“There’s literally been zero communication. Zero,” he said. “It’s been a blackout.”
An inquiry from THE CITY to Lee and the school about the firings went unanswered.
‘Nothing to Lose’
The LISMA students are facing a tough situation, noted Ludka Zimovcak, an immigration attorney who advises New York-area colleges and universities, including CUNY.
After the April 14 deadline, “they’re going to be out of status,” meaning ICE could at any time issue a notice to appear, an alert signaling “the beginning of deportation proceedings.”
Her advice: Do something, like changing the type of visa they have, or try to have their student status reinstated.
“The worst thing they can do is do nothing,” she said.
But doing something is getting increasingly difficult. On Wednesday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services closed its field offices until “at least April 1.”
A spokesperson for ICE directed affected students to contact its SEVP Response Center at (703) 603-3400 and the agency’s tip line, which is staffed around the clock.
With travel restrictions increasing, even the option of leaving the U.S. and returning home is becoming less feasible for the LISMA students.
John realizes the coronavirus crisis may stretch past the April 14 deadline and doesn’t know what to do next.
“They already took my F-1 [visa] so, what else do I need to lose?” he said. “I have nothing to lose now. They already took it away.”
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