Each year the US Citizenship & Immigration Services Vermont Service Center (VSC) invites “stakeholders"--anyone with a vested interest or who is significantly impacted by the decisions that come out of the VSC--to visit the Center, take a tour, and participate in roundtable discussions on individual types of visas. The VSC processes nearly all the nonimmigrant visa petitions originating from the Eastern half of the US, and the Center also has exclusive jurisdiction over several other types of cases, including certain family-based applications, all VAWA, T visa, and U visa cases. As a brand new addition to the firm, I was invited by Partners Protima Daryanani and Manuel Otero to accompany them to this event, along with Associate Attorney Jacki Granet. I was interested to see just where all those petitions go once we seal up the FedEx envelopes and send them off.
We arrived at the VSC at 7am, fresh off of a forty minute drive from our hotel in Burlington. The Service Center itself looks like a small state-of-the-art corporate campus--from the early 1980s. The main building is large and unyieldingly rectangular, facing a similar building with inexplicably less character--the warehouse where thousands of petitions are stored. After making it through airport-like security, we gathered in the lobby to begin the tour. The interior of the building looks exactly like my elementary school: drop ceilings, fluorescent overhead lighting, and the conference rooms even had section dividers that tucked into the wall, accordion-style, just like the cafeteria of my youth.
The tour guide showed our group of about a dozen stakeholders, almost all immigration lawyers, the overflowing cubicles where adjudicators review and decide cases. The VSC workforce, unlike most sectors of business in the U.S., is growing at an exponential rate, causing cramped quarters with four adjudicators assigned to each cubicle. According to our guide, the VSC has hired around two hundred new officers in the past year alone and is constructing a larger building (set to be completed in 2014) in the nearby town of Essex to house its growing staff. As a result of the overcrowding, many adjudicators work from home. The VSC reports that 28% of its staff “teleworks” by signing out case files and adjudicating from home. Teleworkers are required to come into the office at least once every seven days. We were also treated to a view from afar of the Premium Processing Unit, a small room flanked by high shelves, stuffed with case files and punctuated with two direct phone lines.
Our tour proceeded to an open floor populated by desks and workers typing furiously. Because of the high volume of work and the resulting new hires, the VSC was forced to institute a second shift, which was hard at work when we strolled through at 7:30am. These contract workers enter all the information about a case received into the VSC’s database, beginning the adjudication process. It was great to see how the cases we file are processed and ultimately adjudicated. After the tour, we congregated in the conference room and enjoyed some much-needed (and local!) Green Mountain coffee. I did not go for the seasonal Pumpkin Spice Blend Brew, but I did have seconds of the apple cider donuts (Manny nabbed some mini-muffins, too).
Thomas Cioppa, the Acting Center Director, briefly addressed the conference room filled with around one hundred immigration attorneys. We then broke into groups to attend various visa-specific roundtable discussions. The allure of these sessions is that we get to actually speak with adjudicating officers and supervisors: the people who actually decide the cases we prepare. This is a tremendous opportunity to gauge their thinking about certain types of cases and ask questions. Jacki and I attended the H-1B discussion, where the issue of the recent government shutdown and its far-reaching ramifications into the Department of Labor (DOL) immediately came to the forefront. Because of the shutdown, we could not file and certify Labor Condition Applications, a crucial part of the H-1B process. The VSC officers said they did not have an across-the-board policy mapped out for cases that had been submitted with uncertified LCAs but said that each petition would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Many of the questions from attorneys centered on the training the H-1B adjudicators receive and how specific the training is in regard to niche areas of employment. The session was helpful and enlightening, as we learned that the VSC is in the early stages of educating and instituting experts in defined fields of employment to better analyze and assess business visa cases.
After a short break, the four of us from the firm attended the O-1 discussion as the final event of the day, learning that the VSC will soon be releasing a new template for O-1 Requests for Evidence. We also discussed the role of the unions in O-1 petitions and the process to expedite certain petitions. Several lawyers asked about the apparently increasing incidences of Embassies and Consulates returning cases that have already been adjudicated and approved by USCIS Centers (such as the VSC). They were referring to when an Embassy or Consulate denies the applicant’s visa issuance and furthermore sends the petition back to USCIS with the recommendation to re-adjudicate and deny the already approved case. The VSC acknowledged that it is aware of this issue but did not provide any further comment. The O-1 panelists also brought up the issue of testimonials in the form of letters by experts in the field that are submitted in support of fashion models for O-1 visas. They stated these letters must be specific, coherent, and personal. The speakers emphasized that the recent trend in cases they had been receiving included very generic letters that they warned would be deemed insufficient. The discussions wrapped up around noon and we headed back to Burlington (in our formidable Ford Expedition rental).
Work aside, Vermont is a beautiful escape from New York City, especially in autumn. We took a stroll along Lake Champlain just before the sun set--a sight that photographs do not do justice. The local food is also a destination in itself. For dinner the evening before our visit to the VSC, we dropped by The Farmhouse Tap & Grill on Bank Street in Burlington. The Farmhouse bills itself as a farm-to-table gastropub known for its burgers. We were met with an hour wait, but it was a Thursday evening and we were happy to head downstairs to the tap room. The tap room has the feel of your friend’s basement in high school, complete with a wood-burning fireplace and wall-to-wall carpeting. I was particularly excited by the twenty-odd beers on tap, many produced right in Vermont. I can’t exactly say the wait for the food was worth it, though. I opted for a black bean burger, which was very good and made on the premises, and others in our group reported that their beef burgers were up to snuff; however, the service wasn’t the best and ultimately spoiled our experience.
Right before we left for our return flight we grabbed lunch at Pennycluse, a restaurant that I cannot recommend enough. All of us over did it, but we regret nothing. We ordered Sleepy Nate’s Biscuits and Gravy as a starter and were won over immediately. Protima loved her Apple Butter French toast, and Manny raved about the macaroni and cheese. Days later, Jacki was still reminiscing fondly about her Orb Weaver Cheese Sandwich with Roasted Turkey. My favorite part of the meal was dessert: I had a homemade ice cream sandwich, filled with vanilla bean ice cream flanked by the softest gingersnap cookies I have ever encountered. I don’t think I’ll mind making an annual trip to Vermont at all.