Dancing Your Way Through Immigration Records

The Alien File, or A-File, of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in 1986 with Bob Hope, is among the records available in the online reading room of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NARA Identifier 6416844)
The Alien File, or A-File, of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in 1986 with Bob Hope, is among the records available in the online reading room of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NARA Identifier 6416844)

Interested in immigration records? You’re not alone. U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) is on track to receive about 140,000 FOIA requests in the year ending September 20, 2014.

Top USCIS FOIA officials recently took time from overseeing records request processing to meet with requesters and FOIA professionals from other agencies, offering tips to requesters for obtaining access to records and to agencies for handling 600 (!) requests a day. USCIS officials also heard suggestions for improving the process.

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet, who moderated the August 20, 2014 stakeholder meeting, noted that bringing requesters and agencies together betters the FOIA process for all. “We have an opportunity here to resolve disputes and indeed prevent disputes, which is what this meeting is all about,” she said.

Jill Eggleston, acting chief of staff for the USCIS National Records Center, informed requesters that USCIS maintains three tracks for processing FOIA requests:

  • Track 1 consists of requests for a specific document from an Alien file, or A-File, which documents 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 request for a Certificate of Naturalization would fall into Track 1.
  • Track 2 consists of requests for an entire A-File, the average size of which is 218 pages.
  • Track 3 is an accelerated track and consists of requests from individuals who have a hearing pending before an immigration judge or their attorneys.

The majority of requests USCIS receives seek entire A-Files or a particular A-File document, which can include forms, correspondence, photos, news articles and information from other federal agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of State.

When an A-File contains records that originated at ICE or another agency, USCIS refers those documents to the originating agency for direct response to the requester by the originating agency. (USCIS has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with CBP allowing USCIS to process CBP documents without referrals.) One participant suggested that USCIS allow FOIA professionals from other agencies to review referrals at USCIS to streamline the process that now involves sending records between agencies.

Form G-639 is not required to make a request to USCIS, but it is recommended.

If you’re interested in checking the status of your request or wish to know the average processing time for each track, USCIS’s FOIA web site provides such information and is updated daily.

Before you make a request, you may wish to check out the USCIS Electronic Reading Room. If a document has been requested two or more times or there’s a strong likelihood that it will be requested again, it’s a candidate for the reading room. Got suggestions for additions to the collection? Email your ideas to uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov.  

Other FOIA offices might be interested in USCIS’s Significant Interest Group (SIG), a team that handles non-A-File requests, which account for about 1,500 requests a year. Program managers who are tasked with searching for responsive documents are required to fill out a form documenting the search. The SIG teams issues monthly report cards to program offices based on the quality and timeliness of their responses. “It’s created a healthy competition among the program offices,” said Acting Deputy Chief of FOIA Roger Andoh.

Several suggestions for improving the USCIS FOIA process came up during the meeting, including making it easier for requesters to communicate with FOIA professionals and creating a fourth track to deal with data requests.

Mr. Andoh noted that his team provides requesters with the names, phone numbers and email addresses of the FOIA professionals processing the requests, and has facilitated calls between requesters and program managers to help the FOIA process.

Several requesters noted that it’s difficult to figure out which agencies have which records, especially since USCIS isn’t alone in the immigration landscape. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a five-part series of posts on immigration records:

Demystifying Immigration Records, Part 1
Ensuring Requests for A-Files are A-OK
ICE: A Source for Investigative Immigration Records
Immigration Records, Part 4: Customs & Border Protection Records
More on Immigration Records

USCIS plans to hold similar meetings and is aware that some folks were unable to connect with the number provided for the August 20, 2014 meeting. “We apologize for the inconvenience and we hope they will not be discouraged from participating in more engagements in the future,” Mr. Andoh said.

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