Note: An OGIS-sponsored forum on immigration records on May 23 brought together FOIA professionals from agencies which maintain immigration records with immigration attorneys and others interested in such records. The FOIA Ombudsman: Information & Advice is spot-lighting each agency, the types of immigration records each holds and tips for obtaining those records under FOIA.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the government agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that oversees lawful immigration to the United States. An average of 600 FOIA/Privacy Act requests each day come into its centralized records office in Lee’s Summit, MO. Ninety-nine percent of those requests are from people who are not citizens or nationals of the United States seeking their own records or their attorneys. USCIS is the custodian of Alien Files, or A-Files, which document a person’s contacts with the Federal government as she or he lives as an immigrant and/or strives to become a naturalized citizen. A-Files are an average of 200 pages long.
Several agencies add documents to the A-File, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Departments of Defense (DoD) and State. USCIS will process CBP documents in an A-File in its response to a FOIA request for an A-File (by agreement between those two agencies), but will refer documents from the other agencies to those other agencies, which respond directly to the requester. And while CBP documents in an A-File will be processed by USCIS, CBP may have other records that are not in the A-File.
USCIS has an estimated 50 million paper records—25 million at the USCIS facility in Lee’s Summit and another 25 million in the nearby Federal Records Center. (A-Files of persons born 100 years ago are in the legal custody of the National Archives. Stay tuned to the FOIA Ombudsman for a post about the immigration records in the Archives holdings later this summer.) The average processing time for USCIS to process an A-File request was five to six months as of May 2012.
USCIS Form G-639 is a convenient way to request records from the agency, but it’s not mandatory. If the form is not used, requesters are asked to provide the A-File holder’s name, address, date of birth and country of birth. “We have a lot of individuals with the same name. We have a lot of individuals with the same name and the same birth date,” said Jill Eggleston, Assistant Center Director, FOIA/PA Division, USCIS. Keep in mind that A-Files are released only to the individual named in the A-File or his or her attorney.
The identity of the requester must be verified either by signing it in the presence of a notary or under penalty of perjury.
USCIS divides its requests into three tracks: Track 1 is for a simple request, such as request for a copy of a Green Card, an ID card attesting to permanent resident status in the US. Track 2 is for a complex request, such as an entire A-File. Track 3 is a quick track for requests from people facing deportation who have a scheduled hearing date in U.S. Immigration Court. Proof of a hearing date must be presented to be placed in Track 3.
A few other things to keep in mind: USCIS also keeps records of employers who are petitioning for work visas on behalf of an alien or aliens. Citizens or lawful permanent residents who see an error in their files may petition to have the records corrected under the Privacy Act of 1974. Unlawful residents and individuals who are not U.S. citizens have no such right.