Interested in getting a copy of your immigration file? You’re not alone. U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) responds to several thousand requests for immigration files each year. In fact, the agency receives nearly 600 requests for records every day.
A law called the Freedom of Information Act (commonly referred to as FOIA), allows Americans and non-citizens to access their immigration records. For some, a search for information may just be for curiosity. For other individuals, obtaining records (and/or determining if they exist) may be critical for an immigration case. Immigration attorneys routinely make FOIA requests for their clients.
Not all information is available. Older immigration records before 1982 will not be available through the FOIA process. However, those seeking older records for genealogy purposes can utilize the USCIS Genealogy Program.
Making a FOIA Request
FOIA requests must be made in writing. You may complete your request by filing Form G-639, Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act Request. Download the form and filing instructions from the USCIS.gov website. Form G-639 is not required to make a request to USCIS, but it’s highly recommended. By submitting your request with Form G-639, the standard format can help to make your request more clear.
Make a specific request
It’s important that your request is easy to understand and possible to fulfill. In other words, make it clear exactly what you are requesting. The request must also be something that USCIS can fulfill based on their role and the limits of the law.
Generally, persons filing Form G-639 are looking for a specific record or document. But you may also request a complete immigration file, also known as an A file. As you might expect, requests for specific documents will generally be quicker. So if the information that you need is limited, be very specific. Here are some examples of ways to word your request:
- I am requesting any and all copies of I-485 applications that include my name
- I am requesting any and all copies of I-130 petitions that I filed for John Doe
- I am requesting any and all copies of my Chinese birth certificate
Please note that USCIS will only have documents like a birth certificate if you have previously provided it to them. Do not use G-639 to request original documents. Use Form G-884, Request for Return of Original Documents. ( http://www.uscis.gov/g-884 )
On the other hand, you may want to request a complete immigration file. In this case, your request may be worded as, “I am requesting any all documents related to myself (complete A file).”
Identifying the type of information you need is vital in making a good FOIA request.
Identify the Purpose for Filing Form G-639
Although stating the purpose of your request is not required, providing the information can assist USCIS in locating the records need to respond to your request. The context of your request can also affect the speed at which it is fulfilled.
For example, if you are seeking documents for your case before an immigration judge and deportation is a possible outcome, USCIS may expedite your FOIA request and send your documents to you as soon as possible.
How USCIS Will Process Your FOIA Request
According to Jill Eggleston of the USCIS National Records Center, USCIS maintains three tracks for processing FOIA requests:
- Track 1 is for simple requests of a specific document from an alien file.
- Track 2 consists of requests for an entire alien file. (The average size of an A-file is 218 pages!)
- Track 3 is an accelerated track for requests from individuals who have been served a “Notice to Appear” before an immigration judge and are facing removal proceedings.
The majority of requests that USCIS receives are from individuals seeking entire A-files or a particular item, which can include forms, correspondence, photos, news articles and information from other federal immigration 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 with CBP allowing USCIS to process CBP documents without referrals.
If you will be appearing before an immigration judge and wish to have expedited processing of your Form G-639, it’s important that you also provide evidence of the court date. Examples of acceptable documents include:
- Form I-862, Notice to Appear, documenting a future scheduled date of the subject’s hearing before the immigration judge
- Form I-122, Order to Show Cause, documenting a future scheduled date of the subject’s hearing before the immigration judge
- Form I-863, Notice of Referral to Immigration Judge
- A written notice of continuation of a future scheduled hearing before the immigration judge
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.
Who Can File a FOIA Request with USCIS
Virtually anyone can file Form G-639, Freedom of Information Act Request. Most people file Form G-639 for their own immigration information. You may file the form for someone else, as long as that person consents to the request and signs the form. If the subject is a minor, you must submit proof of parentage (or proof of guardianship). Submit a copy of your state-issued ID (such as a driver’s license) and a copy of the child’s birth certificate or adoption decree. You may also request the records of a deceased relative. Include proof of death with the request in the form of a death certificate, obituary, funeral memorial or photo of the headstone.
Cost to File Form G-639, FOIA Request
There is no cost to file Form G-639, Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Request. Although you will consent to paying up to $25 when filing the form, no money is due at the time you file. Most simple searches do not result in a charge to the requester.
After Filing Form G-639
Once they have received your request, USCIS will enter it into the FIPS database. The Freedom of Information Act requires that USCIS acknowledge your request within 20 business days from the date received. You will receive an acknowledgement letter from USCIS that contains a control number and an estimate on timeframe. However, if you have not provided sufficient information to process the request, USCIS may respond with a request for additional information. Further, USCIS may extend the response time for an additional 10 business days in certain situations. Using the control number provided to you, you can check that status of your case using the online FOIA Request Status Check. ( https://egov.uscis.gov/foiawebstatus/ )