WHAT IS THE NATIONAL BENEFITS CENTER?
The National Benefits Center ("NBC") is a national immigration office which processes immigration petitions from across the country, including I-129F (K-3 & K-4), I-765, I-131, and parts of I-485. NBC is located in Lee's Summit, MO USA, and housed in a large modern warehouse-style building of approximately 135,000 square feet consisting of conference rooms, work cubicles, file and staging areas, management offices and even a law library, spacious lunch hall and small gym.
NBC was opened in March 2002, and set up at first to provide "administrative service" functions for the District Offices, viewing them as their customers. In fact, NBC is considered a "Field Office", rather than a "Service Center" in USCIS's operational scheme, and actually reports to Field Office Operations.
NEW WORK AND GROWTH AT NBC
As time passed, NBC was designated the task of accepting and processing certain petitions such as I-129F (K-3 & K-4) through "Direct Mail". A Lockbox contractor with P.O. Box in Chicago, IL USA was retained for initial file review and data capture, fee acceptance, sending of the receipt notice to customer, and forwarding of file to NBC. With the growing responsibilities for petitions such as the I-129F, NBC has increasingly viewed the filing public as its new customer. NBC however is not a "policy shop", but rather an implementer of processing needs.
Under Center Director Rob Cowan, who assumed stewardship about a year ago, NBC has steadily rolled out its functions, and staffed and trained personnel, including management ranks. NBC divides its functions into service areas such as adjudications, records, contractor oversight, government employees, and customer relations.
Many staff positions in the past had been temporary, but more recently most of these positions have now been authorized as permanent, providing a much-needed morale boost. NBC has also grown to be one of the largest employers in Lee's Summit, and continues its hiring and training programs.
MEETING & WALK-THROUGH TOUR OF NBC
On November 04, 2004, along with about 15 to 20 AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Assn.) attorneys from across the USA, I attended a 2 hour meeting and walk-through facility tour with NBC Director Cowan and senior staff. We met as a group in a large conference room, where Director Cowan introduced himself and his staff, provided background overview of NBC and reviewed various current issues with slide presentation and Q.&A. discussion. The meeting was followed by a walk-through of the services areas of the facility, including adjudications, contract employees area, government employees area, mail process rooms, contractor oversight area, file and stack rooms, Congressional and AILA liaison areas, management offices such as Director's Office, law library and lunch room.
We were offered a valuable but limited opportunity to ask questions and secure some answers. Here is Q. & A. information made available to us.*
[*Derived from Notes Taken at NBC/AILA Meeting at NBC on November 04, 2004 and NBC/AILA Teleconference Minutes October 06, 2004 Posted on AILA InfoNet at Doc. 04110112 (November 01, 2004)].
1. QUESTION: STAFFING AND HIRING
What is the current staffing situtation at NBC? What is the current or expected plan for new hiring?
NBC employs both private contractor staff and government employees. Private contractor staff perform routine clerical functions and number about 300, working in two shifts. As for government employees, there are 196 permanent positions currently authorized as of April 2004. NBC continues to hire and train for these positions. Full staffing level is not expected for several months.
As concerns adjudications staff specifically, NBC is authorized up to 120 permanent adjudication officers. Presently, NBC has about 90 on board. NBC Director Cowan advised that NBC considers full level of staffing to be reached at 200 adjudications officers. NBC continues to hire and train for these positions. However, the earliest time that additional officers fully trained can be deployed is January 2005.
As for adjudications of I-129F (K-3) petitions in particular, there are presently 9 adjudications officers deployed, but 14 are authorized. NBC will work towards full staffing. However, no overtime funds for after-hours or weekend work are presently authorized.
2. QUESTION: BACKLOG REDUCTION
What is NBC's plan for handling backlog of petitions, including increased workload from local offices (I-765, I-131, I-485), backlog of I-539 (V Visa) and I-130s from Texas Service Center
NBC is trying to allocate the limited number of officers available among the current caseload. Director Cowan described the challenge as a "juggling act" with limited resources.
Based on staffing and hiring situation outlined above, NBC should be better able to handle workload as new officers come on line.
The backlog reduction for I-539s projects that NBC will be current at end of one year or less from now.
The backlog reduction for I-130s from TSC projects that NBC will be current by early months of 2005.
3. QUESTION: I-129F (K-3) PETITIONS
Recently, customers are reporting that they have not received timely or any notices of receipt or approval for their petitions, either hard copy or e-mail. Furthermore, customers have complained that K-3 visa petitions slowed to a crawl over the summer months. Additionally, there are reports of problems with RFEs (Request for Additional Evidence), and how NBC is handling responses to to these RFEs. What can you comment?
Recently, NBC experienced system problems in these areas - mailing of notices, K-3 petition processing and RFEs. Processes have been implemented to address these areas.
Receipt Notices for I-129Fs are generated and mailed by the Lockbox contractor. If you have not received a receipt notice after 30 days of case filing, please submit inquiry to NBC through AILA (if you are using an AILA attorney), or through your Congressional liaison representative providing as much information as possible to identify the case (names of petitioners and beneficiaries, dates of birth, date of filing, etc.)
Approval Notices for I-129Fs are generated and mailed by NBC. A process has been initiated to better ensure that approval notices go out within approximately one week after approval. NBC conducted "facility sweeps" in September and October 2004, and mailed out over 4000 notices. After approval, NBC sends the file to National Visa Center (NVC) by overnight delivery UPS or FedEx.
NBC also experienced system problems this summer affecting K-3 petition processing, both in software and file handling. NBC has implemented processes to address these issues, resulting in improved efficiency. RFEs are now handled in a streamlined fashion and uniformly by all adjudications officers.
4. QUESTION: DIRECT MAIL
What is the status of DIRECT MAIL of customer petitions to Lockbox, rather than filing petitions at the local District Office?
NBC anticipates that before year end all District Offices participating in Indirect Mail (petitions are filed with them and they forward to NBC) will transition to Direct Mail (petitions are filed directly by customer to Lockbox). District Offices not participating in Indirect Mail will also transition to Direct Mail by Spring 2005. Notice will be published shortly in the Federal Register.
5. QUESTION: EADs (I-765 Employment) and APs (I-131 Travel)
This summer 2004, customers complained of substantial slowdowns in EADs and APs from the District Offices participating in Indirect Mail. What can you comment?
NBC is aware of this problem and has taken steps to reduce the I-765 and I-131 backlog. Vast improvements have been made in the process of adjudicating concurrently filed ancillary applications. NBC is currently working to streamline process for adjudicating stand-alone ancillaries. Processing times have moved up for up for (c)(9)s and all other I-765 categories, as well as I-131s. NBC hopes to complete backlog of (c)(9) concurrently filed I-765s by end November 2004.
6. QUESTION: PRIORITY IN PETITION PROCESSING
In light of the Congressional intent of LIFE Act for prompt family re-unification, is there not a priority to K-3 and K-4 petitions?
NBC is aware of LIFE Act Congressional intent. This is strictly a resource issue. Funding and resources will enable timely adjudications. As NBC moves up to 14 permanent officers in this category, K-3 processing will fall into line with more prompt adjudications.
NBC, like all government facility operations, continually face competing pressures for priority processing. For example, I-765 EADs recently became a high priority, and signficant improvement has been made in that area also.
7. QUESTION: TIMELY UPDATES AND CUSTOMER SERVICE INFORMATION ABOUT NBC
Customers have complained that getting accurate and timely updates and customer service information about NBC is difficult at best. For example, this past summer when there was an apparant processing slowdown at NBC, customers became severely frustrated by the lack of current available information from NBC, even with the help of Congressional liaison assistance. What can be done to address this?
I asked Director Cowan about the possibility of using the USCIS website to provide periodic updates and other customer service information about NBC, especially advising about special problems and planned solutions. Mr. Cowan was very receptive to this suggestion and has been looking into the construction of a FAQ page about NBC on USCIS website and asked his staff the explore this again and also to investigate setting aside a portion for periodic status updates. Please continue to monitor
USCIS website in the coming future.
USA Immigration Attorney