By: Nicole Derden
I am the owner of my own immigration law firm in Boise, Idaho and a mom of four boys. My brother-in-law is currently employed as my associate and we have six bilingual legal assistants to help us with our case load of about 300. In October, two of our legal assistants took some vacation time. My husband, also, took a business trip the weekend before Halloween and left me with our boys at home, ages 11-3. With the extra duties of my vacationing legal assistants, and my single-parenting (albeit temporarily) I felt I needed a break.
Coincidentally, I read of the opportunity to visit the NVC. I was immediately interested, as more than ½ of my practice focuses on Immigrant Visas required to Consular Process. When my husband (and best friend) told me he could not afford the additional vacation days, I initially hesitated before planning the trip without him. Nevertheless, on November 1, 2017, I did travel to New Hampshire and had the great privilege of joining 35 other AILA attorneys to tour the National Visa Center. In reflection of my visit, I have put together a few tips that allowed me to indulge a little while simultaneously making the most of those 3 days away from my boys and my firm.
(HINT: Tip 3 gives all the insider info about the NVC!)
1) Go ahead and plan that trip, without any guilt.
As I stated, initially I hesitated to plan the trip. I would be leaving my husband to parent the four boys on his own. It would require two full days of travel just to get to and from the location and I was only really going to see the National Visa Center for 2 short hours. But, on second thought, those 60+ hours would be MY hours. – with the exception of the airlines schedule, and those two precious 2 hours at the NVC, I would be free to do whatever I wanted. So, I planned the trip and organized my flights and hotels and looked forward to three full days of “me time.”
2) Find an Amiga – (or other supportive members of your tribe)
After I booked my flight and lodging, I resolved to take my time to relax, read the novels I had brought, and explore New Hampshire on my own. However, in my planning, I had corresponded some with other attorney travelers beforehand, and took up an offer to meet for breakfast the morning of the tour. In doing so, I booked a hotel close to the breakfast establishment and found that other AILA attorneys had done the same. In fact, the night of my arrival I met an immigration attorney from Michigan, Sufen Hilf, who invited me to join two other attorneys from New York City and Miami for dinner and drinks.
Similarly, at breakfast the next day, approximately a dozen of us gathered again, representing private practice and non-profits from coast to coast. We passed around our business cards like Pokémon, and created a “breakfast club” email list – allowing us to correspond with each other post-trip. From that group, Sufen and I were able to obtain a ride from an attorney from New Hampshire and then later with an attorney from Alaska. The attorney from Alaska introduced Sufen and I to another attorney from Chicago, Sofia Zneimer, and with those two ladies I enjoyed a lovely afternoon in colonial Portsmouth after the NVC tour.
3) Absorb knowledge and take notes.
During my time with Sufen, especially the night before our NVC tour, she commented that she hoped to listen and learn from other attorneys around her throughout the trip. I took her advice to heart, and did my best to absorb the experiences and legal questions presented by the attorneys around me.
The morning of our tour was grey, but not too rainy. The fall foliage on our drive from downtown Portsmouth to the NVC did not disappoint. The National Visa Center is located near a small airport, and is actually two buildings, separated by a parking lot. As with any government agency, the contract security there was very serious about their job, as they immediately got on us about taking pictures of the building without the expressed authorization of “those inside.” Once we entered the building we had to find our name on “the list,” ID ourselves, and take a name tag. There were clear signs indicating “NO PHOTOS” and we were prohibited from bringing in any computers. All our cell phones had to be turned off.
We soon met Productions Manager Dustin Haack & Director Conn Schrader, and several other members of their staff. The tour began right away, first to outgoing-mail where we witnessed pallets of boxes of A files wrapped in saran-like wrap, and ready to send via DHL to India. As contract employees moved those pallets out of the way, wheeled carts waited in the hall with rows of hundreds of files lined up to be similarly packaged and sent to Guangzhou, China. An enormous printer was shooting paper into envelopes and we were told these were the “Welcome Letters” that individuals received in the physical mail if they do not have a designated email address when their petition arrives from USCIS (or is pulled from the priority date filing system in the building next door once their priority date nears).
The NVC is home to approximately 2.5 million files. Forty percent of those files belong to Mexico (the bread and butter of my practice). Of the approximately 750 employees, only 8 people are actually employed by the State Department, the other 740 are all contract workers. The NVC employs individuals five days a week in two shifts, 6:30am-3:30pm and 3:30pm-12:30am.
We continued our walk through the facility, down a hallway lined with files designated and organized by the Consular Post’s three-letter codes. We were shown the fraud unit, where files are randomly selected to run for fraud checks. There were many cubicles decorated with small personal tokens, a few covered by a tent-like structure to stave off the effects of fluorescent lighting, and they occupied several thousand square feet of floor space. We were informed of how the case numbers are created using the year, the Julian date plus 500, in order of receipt.
We completed our walk-through of the first building and crossed the parking lot to the second building which houses the call center, the email response team, the incoming mail room, and the files awaiting their priority date. We learned that all new cases received (or pulled from the priority date shelves) as of November 1, are now being processed electronically on the Department of State’s end, so the NVC can send those files to the Consular Posts abroad, without having to send those numerous pallets of boxes we saw at the beginning of our tour. We saw the enormous industrial scanner that now takes a picture (front and back) of all incoming physical documents for this purpose.
Finally, we were invited to an open-forum Q & A Session where we learned of the 14 countries that are currently being processed electronically by the applicants (meaning that the applicant must upload documents online uses CEAC). This is in addition to the countries who may choose to utilize email processing (where document may be emailed to NVCelectronic@state.gov). Both lists of countries may avoid sending any paper documentation to NVC. See instructions on paper vs. paperless processing at https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/immigrate/immigrant-process/documents/Submit_documents.html. For all cases still processing in the mail, we should be sending an online cover sheet from CEAC or, at a minimum, a top sheet indicating the NVC case number.
During the remainder of the one-hour Q & A session, attorneys asked questions about the lack of ability to edit a DS-260 once it’s been submitted at the CEAC website (an issue NVC has noted and is working on a “fix”), also issues electronically paying fee bills on a case that has already been transferred to the Consulate abroad (the individual Consulate must instruct NVC if they wish the case to be reopened in their system for the purpose of payment).
It became apparent that the NVC is only a processing center, a sort of “go between,” that is not involved in adjudication of any kind. Although there is a fraud detection unit at NVC, they only research cases and provide information. No adjudication is done at the NVC. If a case is to be reopened from an INA 203(g) termination that decision comes from the consulate. If a case needs payment of fee bills, but has already been forwarded to the Consulate, the Consulate must direct how to pay those fee bills. If a case desires visa processing at third-country post, the Consulate must approve of that transfer. If a case is revoked, that revocation comes from the Consulate. The NVC merely serves as a stateside hub for the collection of documents and the transfer of the case file to the appropriate Consulate overseas. That being said, it was also apparent that those who manage the 2.5 million case files, and the 750 employees, understand the importance of their work, and their impact on the lives of immigrants and their families as their case moves through their facility.
I left the tour with several pages of notes and a new sense of humanity in our government’s attempts to organize and process millions of petitions of immigrants worldwide who wish to immigrate permanently to our country.
4) Leave the office at home
After the tour, as a busy attorney might be, I was tempted to head to my hotel room to catch up on emails and make sure all was running smoothly at my office. But, upon the advice of my husband, I left my laptop in Idaho, specifically so I would enjoy myself and my trip. I’m so glad that I did! Instead of getting caught up in the happenings of my law firm, I skipped “checking the mail” and got lunch with Sufen and Sofia. We then walked the afternoon away. We enjoyed touring the historical district of Portsmouth, visiting the bay, and even did a little shopping. All the while we discussed our practices, our clients, case theory, and legal interpretation.
5) Be thankful – it is November!
To tie it all out, Sufen and Sofia and I had dinner together, and then I had to catch my bus back to Boston for a flight first thing in the morning. I reflected and counted myself lucky to have the resources and help both at home at the office to be able to tour the NVC and make several new attorney friends in the process. I came home feeling refreshed and thankful for the opportunity.