Demystifying Immigration Records, Part 1

At least five different Federal agencies maintain immigration records, so figuring out which agency holds what records can be challenging—even for frequent FOIA requesters like immigration attorneys. On the flip side, agencies are challenged by a constant stream of immigration records requests.

Immigration Building, Ellis Island, 1900 ARC 597954
Following a few best practices will help build a better FOIA request for immigration records. (Immigration Building, Ellis Island, 1900; ARC 597954)

An OGIS-sponsored forum on immigration records May 23 brought immigration attorneys and others interested in the topic together with FOIA professionals from five agencies which hold immigration records: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) and the Department of State. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) also holds historical immigration records of interest to genealogists, historians and other researchers.

Jill Eggleston, USCIS’s Assistant Center Director of the FOIA/PA Division, proposed the forum as a way to spark discussion about how agencies can more efficiently process immigration records requests. USCIS’s centralized records office, built into a cave in Lee’s Summit, MO, receives an eye-popping average of 600 FOIA/Privacy Act requests each day, 99 percent of them from people who are not citizens or nationals of the United States. The forum offered a chance for FOIA professionals to present an overview of the types of immigration records maintained in each agency and how each agency processes requests. We’re pleased that forum participants will continue the discussion with an eye toward streamlining access to immigration records—and improving the FOIA process.

Now a few best practices and tips for requesters (or their attorneys) that came out of the forum:

  • Learn which agencies have what records. USCIS, for example, is the custodian of Alien Files, or A-Files, which document an alien’s contacts with the Federal government as she or he lives as an immigrant and/or strives to become a naturalized citizen. (Stay tuned: in the coming weeks, the FOIA Ombudsman will spotlight each of the agencies and the types of immigration records each holds.)
  • If you need just one document, ask for just that document. Asking for specific records will save both you and the agency time, making the FOIA process more efficient for all.  Vague requests can mean lots of wasted search time.
  • Requesters and their attorneys frequently don’t request specific documents because they’re afraid if they do, an agency will hide something. Use this as an opportunity to have a conversation with agency FOIA professionals. CBP is proactively contacting requesters who ask for “all records” to see if they can tailor their records requests.