A Sunny Day At A Dreary Place
May 6, 2009 brought a mid-Spring spate of warm, sunny weather, without a cloud in the sky, creating an almost perfect Southern California day. I decided to spend this sunny day attending the "External Stakeholders Meeting" at the California Service Center ("CSC") of USCIS. Admittedly, I approached this meeting with an equal measure of fear and loathing. Not having attended one of these meetings in several years and having read some disappointingly evasive and unresponsive liaison notes in recent times, I questioned the value of the entire exercise. My preliminary skepticism was not abated when receiving an e-mail asking me if I still wanted to attend. CSC had sent out a notice that they would no longer engage in a Q&A with attendees because of brewing bad blood between the "external stakeholders" and the CSC amid accusations of bad faith dealings. The CSC declared:
In case the message was not clear, the e-mail continued with the following proviso, which was also attached to the bottom of each page of the Q&A distributed at the meeting. The CSC attempted to mandate:
Thus, I arrived at the CSC anticipating a silent exchange of written answers to previously submitted and carefully vetted questions with no interaction between the external stakeholders and the CSC. While it was sunny outside, I expected a dreary meeting to match the general dreariness that characterizes the physicality of the CSC's offices.
The meeting began with a follow-up dressing down along the lines of the previous e-mail. The open Q&A format of the past was no longer relevant. Then it was announced that the frequency of these "external stakeholders meetings" was to change to either an annual or semi-annual basis, with details forthcoming. However, an almost immediate relaxation of the open Q&A ban was announced by the CSC's willingness to allow the submission of questions (to be limited to follow-up questions regarding the written answers provided) on index cards that would be vetted and distributed to the appropriate CSC panelist for answering. Nonetheless, the answers that were to be given would be limited to answers that one could otherwise find in existing public sources.
Thus, I was surprised that once the written questions were submitted and answered that something quite similar to an open Q&A broke out. Although nothing substantive was resolved by the breakout of this spontaneous Q&A, both sides were able to vent some of the lingering frustrations that have arisen in recent months.
Substantive Updates at the CSC
As has been the case with most of the recent written answers provided by the CSC in response to written stakeholder questions, CSC's written answers to substantive questions were appalling vague and unresponsive to the point of being insulting to the assembled stakeholders.
Two answers that stood out as particularly unresponsive (questions 15 and 18 on the handout) concerned the hot-button issues of the CSC's treatment of L-1B petitions and H-1B and L-1 petitions involving third-party worksites. Question 15 was a sensible, multi-part question asking the CSC to clarify what employers should submit with an initial L-1B petition and whether USCIS would be issuing new guidance on L-1B specialized knowledge, among other pertinent questions. The CSC's response was the appallingly unresponsive "For requirements, please see the applicable laws, regulations and any pertinent policy guidance available at www.uscis.gov. By providing such an arrogantly unresponsive answer, the CSC is basically saying to external stakeholders that they have no stake in the process, regardless of the new "open government" initiatives of the Obama Administration.
Question 18 straightforwardly asked the CSC to "explain what evidence the CSC looks for in L and H petitions involving third party sites." The CSC's response? "Please see response to #15."
This evasiveness did not go unchallenged by the attendees. When pressed by one participant to provide responsive, good faith answers to questions 15 and 18, the CSC's response was "we answered that question and that's our answer." It's easier to squeeze blood from a turnip than it is to figure out how that answer addresses the questions presented.
Forty-two questions were asked in total. No new ground or substantive information was provided in any response. The knowledge base of the external stakeholders was not broadened in any way. More importantly, judging by the anger among the attendees, defensiveness of the CSC officials, and the heated exchanges that took place among some attendees and CSC officials after the meeting concluded, the bad blood and misunderstanding can be expected to continue for some time. Even more worringly, post-meeting discussions with the CSC's Community Relations Officer revealed that the CSC fails to appreciate how much of a bad public relations problem they currently have within the external stakeholder community.
A brief EB-5 update was provided, which functioned better as an exercise in self-congratulation. The CSC was proud of the fact that their processing times of both I-526's and I-829's are within guidelines issued by USCIS headquarters. The CSC is also current on adjudicating new Regional Center proposals, but admitted to having issued a high proportion of Request for Evidence ("RFE's") in these cases. The CSC is also receiving EB-5 petitions initially filed at the Texas Service Center.
Change of Counsel
The CSC stated that change of counsel notification could either be executed online or through the National Customer Service Center ("NCSC"). A blanket change of counsel option is not available; Change of counsel procedures must be followed for each underlying matter.
With the outbreak of an impromptu Q&A and the heated exchanges that ensued, some of my earlier pessimism that the meeting would be akin to a mutual wall of silence were misplaced. Nevertheless, I left feeling that relations between the external stakeholders and the CSC will be rocky for some time to come. With the conclusion of the meeting, my time in the dreary CSC had come to an end. At least it was still sunny and warm outside.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.