The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) grants the general public the right to access records of any federal agency, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You may want to know what information the USCIS has about you if you are facing a removal proceeding or if there is a problem with your request to become a U.S. citizen through naturalization. This article will discuss the Freedom of Information Act, including how to submit a FOIA request to the USCIS.
What Is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was ratified in 1967. It gives the public the right to obtain records from federal agencies. Only nine categories of information are exempt from being released to the public. Under FOIA, government agencies must also assess the information they possess and post popular requests publicly. Here are two common reasons why some FOIA requests are denied:
- A agency employee foresees that the information may fall under one of the exempt categories
- It’s illegal to disclose the requested information publicly
The Privacy Act (PA) was ratified in 1974. This sets up the guidelines used to govern fair information practices. Because of the PA, all federal agencies have rules about how they collect, manage, and/or make information public.
Why Make a FOIA Request to USCIS?
There are a few reasons you may want or need to make a FOIA request. You may need to get a copy of a form to prove your eligibility in an application for a visa, green card, or naturalization. If you aren’t able to get the documents you need through other means, you can make a FOIA request. Having all the documents and/or files you need prior to submitting applications to USCIS can prevent your forms from being delayed, returned, or rejected.
FOIA requests are also common for people in deportation proceedings. In this case, you may want to enlist an immigration lawyer who can help you request the right documents since these proceedings are time-sensitive. An attorney may be able to make a FOIA request or a Privacy Act request (Form G-639) on your behalf. They can also determine where to send the request or whether they need to send FOIA requests to multiple federal agencies.
Having all the information in your A-File can help you or your lawyer get clarity about your case. It also allows you or them to check for any potential errors, identify eligibility for different forms of relief, and be prepared to make an appeal, if necessary.
How Do You Submit a Freedom of Information Act Request to the USCIS?
Before submitting a FOIA or PA request to USCIS, check to make sure the information isn’t already publicly available through platforms such as the USCIS Public Reading Room. Using tools like the electronic reading room can save you valuable time as you deal with your immigration proceeding(s). If you can’t find the right information as you navigate documents released to the public, you’ll have to get ready to make a FOIA or PA request to USCIS.
Make the Request Online or Via Mail
Though you can make a request by mail, email, fax, or online, USCIS is phasing out the email and fax option and urges people to make these requests via the USCIS website. This allows you to open an online account and has several other advantages, including:
- You’ll receive faster notifications once USCIS receives your request.
- You can track the progress of your request using the control number from your acknowledgment letter.
- You can quickly see USCIS’ response.
- You can download files/requested records quickly if your request is approved.
If for some reason you can’t make an online FOIA request, you can mail your request to the following address:
National Records Center (NRC)
P.O. Box 648010
Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010
How Long Does It Take To Get a Response to a FOIA Request?
By law, the FOIA office has 20 business days to send an acknowledgment letter confirming your request. Paper notices can take a bit longer if you requested a mail response. However, due to the volume of requests sent to the FOIA office, there is often a backlog, which increases processing times.
What Documents Can You Ask for in a FOIA Request?
According to the USCIS, you can request the following types of documents:
- Your own records from your A-File
- Someone else’s immigration records, as long as you have their permission
- USCIS data, policies, or other past communications
Note that requesting your entire A-File typically takes longer than requesting specific immigration records or documents from the file, though this can be expedited if you have a scheduled hearing before an immigration judge and provide evidence of it with your request.
What Information Do You Need To Include in Your Request?
Make sure to follow USCIS’ steps when making your request. You can read the FOIA Request Guide from USCIS.gov to get an idea of what the process of making an FOIA and/or PA request entails. Keep in mind that USCIS may revise their request processes at any time.
You can also view Form I-639 to get an idea of the information you’ll need to provide to USCIS when making an online request, such as:
- The type of request you’re making (FOIA, PA, or both)
- Whether or not the request is for your documents or someone else’s
- Your full name
- Contact information, such as phone number and/or email
- The full name of the person the FOIA or PA request is for
- Description of the documents you’d like
- Circumstances that apply to your request
Is There a Filing Fee for FOIA Requests?
There is no initial fee to make a FOIA request. If it takes more than two hours to find your records, you may be charged a search fee. When you submit your request, you agree to pay up to $25. Note that there is a filing fee of $25 for FOIA and PA requests, and it can change at any time per USCIS discretion. You may be able to get a fee waiver. However, your fee may also exceed $25 and is capped at $250. Requestors may also have to pay a duplication fee for copies the FOIA office makes. The duplication fee covers the cost of printing.
Other Helpful Information
A few final bits of information that can help you as make your request:
- Federal holidays may cause further delays in the receipt and/or processing of your request (if approved).
- Per FOIA, the USCIS may notify you that they’ll need up to 10 business days to respond to you. You will receive such notice in writing.
- Circumstances that may cause USCIS to notify you of a delay on their end include:
- Requests that require multiple files,
- Files that need to be extensively reviewed, or
- Requests that require USCIS to consult with additional agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or a field office.
The Freedom of Information Act allows the public to access records, but the Privacy Act allows individuals to access only their own federal records. The PA also allows people to prevent others from accessing their information and make corrections on their records. A lawyer can help you figure out whether you need to make one type of request or both.
What if I Don’t Get the Information I Want?
Not all FOIA or PA requests are approved. If your request is denied, there are two ways you can appeal.
- Consult with the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), also known as the FOIA Ombudsman.
- Write an administrative appeal (or formal letter) to the USCIS FOIA/PA Appeals Office clearly demarcating your letter and the envelope you use to mail it as a “Freeom of Information Act Appeal.”
You can request OGIS assistance online. If you appeal through OGIS, they assign your case a number then start the dispute/mediation process. They may also request that you fill out a privacy consent statement. Look out for communications from the OGIS, such as phone calls, emails, or printed letters. During their process, the OGIS will see if it’s possible to mediate between you and the agency you dispute. If they don’t see an option or take the agency’s side, your case will be closed and you will receive an explanation for them.
If you choose to appeal to the USCIS, you’ll have to continue to log into the system to track the progress of your appeal. The USCIS also keeps a fax number you can use if you have additional questions about their process: 802-860-6908 or 816-350-5785. You can also email them at email@example.com. Always use the FOIA control number you’re given when you make your initial request so USCIS can answer your questions easily.
Sending a FOIA or PA request can be stressful, especially considering the high stakes involved in any immigration process. USCIS reviews its policies, timetables, and fees periodically, which can add more anxiety to the mix. Rest assured that although it takes some navigating and patience, it’s possible to obtain the records.
Making a USICS FOIA or PA request can be complicated, but help is available. If you are eligible, our free web app will walk you through the FOIA or PA request process and help you prepare and file your request with the U.S. government. If our app isn’t a good fit, we may be able to refer you to an experienced immigration attorney to help. Click "Get Started" to see how we can help make your American dream come true!