Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)

FOIA Ombuds Observer, No. 18-01

FOIA Ombuds Observer  - NARA and OGIS logo


The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) offers dispute resolution services to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters and agencies. This function allows OGIS to observe and examine the interactions between requesters and agencies across the Federal government, and note common questions and issues that arise in the FOIA process. The FOIA Ombuds Observer addresses questions and issues frequently seen in our individual cases. Our goal is to increase efficiency and transparency in the FOIA process.

Using FOIA to Access Immigration Records

August 29, 2018
No. 18-01
 

Requesters regularly contact OGIS to learn how to use Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access immigration records. As with any FOIA request, requesters need to know which agency holds the records they are seeking, and how to submit a request. This Observer lists that information for seven agencies/components that frequently receive FOIA requests for immigration records: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS,) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of State (State Department), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Beyond this list, there are additional agencies that maintain records that may be responsive to a particular FOIA request; the FOIA section of an agency’s website is a great place to find useful information about its records. We thank the above-named agencies for their assistance with this Observer.

Overview of Immigration Record FOIA Resources

Agency Types of Records (non-exhaustive) Where to submit request What to include with your request
USCIS A-Files; Petitions (I-130, I-485, I-589, I-864, N-400, etc.); Deportation Records; Detention and Removal Records; Immigration Data/Statistics

By Mail:
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
National Records Center, FOIA/PA Office
P.O. Box 648010
Lee's Summit, MO 64064-8010
 

By Email:
uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov

Verification of Identity/Consent***

Form G-639 (recommended)

CBP

Apprehension at or between Ports of Entry; Detention at Ports of Entry; Expedited Removal at Ports of Entry; Background Investigations; I-94 Records; Information Regarding Entry and Exit; Inspection or Examination Records at Point of Entry; Voluntary
Return

Online:
https://foiaonline.regulations.gov/
 

By Mail:
FOIA Officer
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
90 K Street, NE
9th Floor, Mail Stop 1181
Washington, DC 20229

Verification of Identity/Consent***
 

If you are an attorney: Form G-28 or G-639

ICE Immigration Enforcement Records; Bond Obligor Requests; Medical Records (while in ICE custody in an IHSC staffed facility; Criminal  Investigatory Records (including SEVIS (F-1, F-3,J-1, M-1, I-20 visas); Worksite Enforcement; Child Labor; and Intellectual Property Online:
https://www.ice.gov/webform/foia-request-f
orm#wcm-survey-target-id


By Mail:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Freedom of Information Act Office
500 12th Street, S.W., Stop 5009
Washington, DC 20536-5009

By Fax:
202-732-4265

By Email:
ICE-FOIA@dhs.gov

Verification of Identity/Consent***

Form G-639 (recommended)

State Dep't

Applications from U.S. Citizens for U.S. Passports; Visa records; Investigations conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security;  Consular assistance given to U.S. Citizens abroad; Current and former employees of the Department of State

By Mail:
Office of Information Programs and Services
A/GIS/IPS/RL
U. S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20522-8100
 

By Fax:
202-261-8579

If you are requesting your own records, include a completed and signed Form DS-4042 (Certification of Identity) with your request.
 

If you are requesting records about yourself or on behalf of another person, you request should include the request subject’s: Full Name (surname(s), given name(s), other distinguishing information (such as Jr., Sr., III), and any aliases or other names used), Date and place of birth (country, state or province, and city)

Include as much detail as possible about the records you seek to help the department locate the information. Such information could include: 

The offices or consulates originating or receiving the record 

The particular event, policy, or circumstance that led to the creation of the record

Your current address and telephone number

Citizenship status

Additional comments to help locate the record

If you are requesting records about yourself or on another person’s behalf, your request must include the request subject’s verification of identity.

HHS Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC) Case Files

By Mail:
Deputy Director for Children’s Programs Office of Refugee Resettlement 
Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


By Email:
Requests.DUCS@acf.hhs.gov

If you are requesting a UAC Case File you should NOT submit a FOIA, instead you should submit a written request and an Authorization for Release of Records (ORR UAC/C-5) to  Requests.DUCS@acf.hhs.gov.
EOIR Records for: Office of the Chief Immigration
Judge; the Office of the Chief Administrative
Hearing Offices; the Board of Immigration
Appeals Records
By Mail:
Office of the General Counsel
Attn: FOIA Service Center
Executive Office for Immigration Review
5107 Leesburg Pike, Suite 1903
Falls Church, VA 22041

By Email:
EOIR.FOIARequests@usdoj.gov

Verification of Identity/Consent***

If you are requesting your own records, include a completed and signed Form DOJ-361 (Certification of Identity) with your request.

NARA Accessioned immigration records, historical records By Mail:
NARA FOIA Officer (NGC), Room 3110,
National Archives and Records
Administration,
8601 Adelphi Road,
College Park, MD 20740-6001

By Email:
foia@nara.gov
Verification of Identity/Consent***

***FIRST-PARTY REQUESTERS (i.e., those requesting their own records) should always include a Verification of Identity Form, such as Form DOJ-361 (Certification of Identity), to ensure maximum access to records under FOIA and/or the Privacy Act.

THIRD-PARTY REQUESTERS can maximize their access by submitting with their request a consent of release form from the subject of the record (you can meet this requirement by having the request subject complete, date, and sign a form such as Form DOJ-361 and including it with your request). Alternatively, you can provide proof that the subject is dead or demonstrate that public interest in the requested records outweighs the subject’s personal privacy interest.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

What is USCIS?
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. Ninety-nine percent of USCIS FOIA requests are from people who are not U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals who seek their own records, or their attorneys.
 

What records do they have?
USCIS maintains millions of records created when immigrants interact with the Federal government. Some of the most commonly requested record types include:
 

Alien Files (A-Files)
Alien Files, often called “A-Files” document a person’s contacts with the Federal government as they pass through the immigration or inspection process. A-Files are an average of 220 pages long. USCIS is the custodian of A-Files; however, 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. Ordinarily, A-Files are released only to the individual who is the subject of the A-File, or his or her attorney or representative. The subject of the record must sign the FOIA request and the signature must be made under penalty of perjury or executed in front of a notary.
 

Form I-130
A U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident submits a Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, on behalf of a close relative who intends to immigrate to the U.S. The person who submits the I-130 is referred to as the “petitioner,” and the person on whose behalf the form is submitted is the “beneficiary.” Once an action is taken on the petition, the form becomes part of the beneficiary’s A-File. This means that the petitioner cannot access a Form I-130 that he or she submitted without providing the agency with the consent of the beneficiary/subject of the A-File, submitting proof that the beneficiary is dead, or demonstrating that the public interest in the requested records outweighs the beneficiary’s personal privacy interests in accordance with FOIA Exemption 6, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6).  
 

Form I-864
A sponsor submits a Form I-864, Affidavit of Support, on behalf of an immigrant to demonstrate that the immigrant will have adequate means of financial support when they arrive in the U.S., and will not become a public charge (an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence). A family member living in the U.S. often submits a Form I-864 and sometimes an employer submits the form. Once the underlying petition is adjudicated, a supporting I-864 is maintained in the beneficiary’s A-File. Consequently, a sponsor requesting access to an I-864 that he or she submitted to the Federal government on behalf of a beneficiary cannot access the form without obtaining a consent of release form from the beneficiary/subject of the A-File, submitting proof that the beneficiary is dead, or demonstrating that the public interest in the requested records outweighs the beneficiary’s personal privacy interests in accordance with FOIA Exemption 6.  
 

What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to USCIS?
Although not required, USCIS recommends that requesters use a G-639 form to submit a FOIA request to the agency. USCIS is also developing an online form that can be used in conjunction with the agency’s forthcoming FOIA processing system, FIRST.

USCIS maintains three tracks for processing FOIA requests.

  • Track 1 consists of simple requests for a specific document from an A-File, such as a Certificate of Naturalization or a copy of a Green Card.
  • Track 2 consists of requests for an entire A-File, the average size of which is 220 pages.
  • Track 3 is an accelerated 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.

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. USCIS will process CBP, State Department, Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), and Health and Human Services (HHS) documents in an A-File in its response to a FOIA request (by agreement between USCIS and those agencies), but will refer documents from other agencies directly to those agencies for direct response to the requester. Keep in mind that while USCIS will process documents in an A-File, CBP, State, BOP, OBIM, and HHS may have other records that are not in the A-File and which must be requested directly from the respective agency.

USCIS will process a request for a particular form or document more quickly than a request for an entire A-File. Referrals to other agencies necessarily slow the processing of a FOIA request, and once all responsive records are located an agency employee still needs to review every page to ensure that no FOIA exemptions apply.

You can help speed the process by including proof of identity with requests for your own A-File or a consent to release form with requests for a third-party’s A-File.
 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

What is CBP?
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency responsible for securing and facilitating trade and travel into the U.S. CBP enforces hundreds of Federal regulations and laws, including immigration and drug laws.
 

What records do they have?
CBP has records pertaining to detention and expedited removal of people who are not citizens or U.S. nationals and who are apprehended while trying to get into the U.S. illegally. The Office of Field Operations has records of arrivals into and departures from the U.S. by air, land or sea, dating back to 1982. Such records are useful for people who have lost their passports or copies of their I-94 forms, which document a traveler’s arrivals and departures. Requesters should know that CBP does not have records on the entry and exit of persons arriving or departing the U.S. before 1982. Most commonly requested CBP records pertain to:

  • CBP Trusted Traveler Programs
  • Apprehension by Border Patrol between Official Ports of Entry
  • CBP Background Investigations
  • Detention by Border Patrol or at Port of Entry
  • Expedited Removal by Border Patrol of at Port of Entry
  • Import Trade Activity (ITRAC) Requests
  • I-94 Records
  • Records of Inspection or Examination at a U.S. Port of Entry
     

What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to CBP?
CBP uses FOIAonline as its official system for tracking all FOIA requests. Submitting a request electronically through the FOIAonline portal is the most efficient way to submit a CBP request.

If you are requesting records that pertain to you, remember to provide your full name, address, and date of birth. If you are requesting records on behalf of someone else, you must submit a signed G-28 form (Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney or Accredited Representative), or signed consent that will allow CBP to release the records to a third party.

If you submit a request for an A-File to CBP, CBP will refer the request to USCIS; it is most efficient to submit your A-File request directly to USCIS.
 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE)

What is ICE?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enforces civil and criminal immigration laws and maintains deportation records.
 

What records do they have?
ICE records include immigration enforcement records documenting ICE enforcement actions such as issuing immigration detainers; arrests, charging, detention, and removal of aliens for administrative immigration violations; the search for and apprehension of fugitive aliens; and ICE decisions concerning the grant or denial of parole to aliens.  This information becomes part of an individual’s A-File, which is maintained by USCIS. In some cases, it may be best to request information from both ICE and USCIS. Requesters who already have some data from ICE may wish to make a supplemental request seeking access to more recent documents added after a specific date. ICE also has records related to immigration enforcement statistics, deaths of detainees, detention facility contracts, bed space information, and vacancy announcements, which represent a majority of the requests that ICE receives other than requests for detention/removal information pertaining to a subject who was encountered/arrested.

ICE also has criminal investigatory records pertaining to ICE investigations into suspected violations of laws regulating the movement of people and goods into and out of the United States in addition to other violations of other laws within ICE's jurisdiction, including records related to worksite enforcement, child labor, intellectual property, and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which manages schools with non-immigrant students as well as F visas for non-immigrant academic students, M visas for non-immigrant vocational students and J visas for exchange visitors.

ICE also maintains medical records for individuals who receive medical treatment while in ICE custody in an IHSC (ICE Health Service Corps) staffed facility.


What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to ICE?
ICE accepts requests on USCIS Form G-639, and it is often useful to submit requests to both agencies given the nuances of USCIS-maintained A-Files and ICE databases. Whether you use the G-639 form, mentioning in your request how you or your client came into contact with ICE—through the workplace or through an enforcement and removal operation, for example—will help the agency pinpoint which office within ICE might have records responsive to your request.

Requesters seeking access to their medical records are moved to the top of the queue. Please note that ICE is not required to respond to FOIA requests from a person who is a fugitive from justice if disclosure could assist the fugitive and/or other targets to avoid apprehension and to develop false alibis.

 

U.S. Department of State

What is the State Department?
The U.S. Department of State is the Federal executive department that represents the U.S. in international affairs and foreign policy issues. One function of the State Department is to issue visas and passports.
 

What records do they have?
The State Department has records documenting the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy and the administration and operations of the department and its missions abroad.  State records regarding immigration generally pertain to visas applications for both non-immigrant and immigrant visa classifications.
 

What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to the State Department?
FOIA is not an efficient way to gain access to State Department visa records. State will withhold visa record information under 8 U.S.C. § 1202(f), which makes visa records (i.e., those pertaining to the issuance or refusal of visas to enter the U.S.) confidential.  First-party requesters will generally obtain access to only those visa-related documents that they provided to State in the process of a visa application. Third-party requesters are generally denied access to such records under FOIA Exemption 3 (statutory exemption).  If you want to learn the reason a particular visa was denied, State suggests writing to the embassy or consulate office that processed the application.
 

U.S. Department of Health And Human Services(HHS)

What is HHS?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the Federal executive department charged with protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services. One of HHS’s component offices is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which assists refugees and asylum seekers with the relocation process and provides program services.
 

What records do they have?
ORR maintains case files for Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC).
 

What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to HHS?
On the FOIA portion of HHS’s website, you can create an account through which you can electronically submit and track FOIA requests. Attorneys, parents, or sponsors requesting a UAC case file should NOT submit a FOIA request, and should instead submit a written request directly to the ORR Division Director at Requests.DUCS@acf.hhs.gov. Requesting parties must file an Authorization for Release of Records (ORR UAC/C-5), which can be found on ORR’s website, which also includes additional instructions regarding supporting documentation.
 

Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)

What is EOIR?
The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) oversees immigration courts, which decide whether foreign-born individuals charged with violating U.S. immigration laws should be removed from the U.S. or allowed to stay. A common misconception is that EOIR is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); it is not; rather, it is part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

What records do they have?
EOIR maintains records pertaining to the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge, the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Offices and the Board of Immigration Appeals Records. Such records include statistics on immigration courts, documents about free legal services and attorney discipline records.

What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to EOIR?
Immigration courts, unlike Federal district courts, do not have a discovery process during which the parties can obtain records from the opposing party, so lawyers frequently use FOIA to obtain records to help defend their client in immigration court. Often other agency components, such as DHS, will have records relevant to an immigration proceeding, so requesters should not limit their request solely to EOIR.

Before filing a FOIA request with EOIR to obtain records regarding yourself or, if you are an attorney, your client, check with the field office court administrators, which offer file reviews on certain dates.  

If you do make a FOIA request, include both your name and your client’s full name, aliases, immigration hearing location and the alien registration number, or A number. If the A number is not known or if the case occurred before 1988, EOIR asks that you provide the date of the Order to Show Cause and Notice of Hearing, the country of origin and the location of the immigration hearing.

First-party requesters (and their attorneys) generally receive their entire EOIR file. For the purposes of providing verification of identity, EOIR recommends that requesters use Form DOJ-361 (Certification of Identity) for first and third-party requests.
 

National Records and Archives Administration (NARA)

What is NARA?
The National Records and Archives Administration (NARA) is the Federal government agency charged with preserving and documenting government and historical records, and with increasing public access to those records. Many of the agencies that create and maintain immigration records store those records only for a limited window of time, such as 25 years, pursuant to a records retention schedule. Pursuant to that schedule, older records may be accessioned, which means that custody, both legal--and most often physical--is transferred to NARA.

What records do they have?
NARA maintains accessioned immigration records for individuals arriving to the United States from foreign ports between approximately 1820 and 1982. NARA’s “ship passenger arrival records” are especially useful for genealogists, historians, and other researchers; they provide information about the subject of a request such as:

  • Nationality, place of birth
  • Ship name and date of entry to the United States
  • Age, height, eye and hair color
  • Profession
  • Place of last residence
  • Name and address of relatives they are joining in the U.S.
  • Amount of money they are carrying, etc.
     

What can I expect when I submit a FOIA request to NARA?
If you seek immigration records from before 1982, you may want to start your search at NARA and see if the records are already accessible via a public database. Once records are accessioned to NARA the originating agency no longer has access to produce those records in response to a FOIA request, so if you know the records that you are seeking are more than a couple decades old you should direct your FOIA request to NARA.

 

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