The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law is based on the presumption that individuals have a right to know what their government is doing and that government agencies have a duty to provide full disclosure of all records that are not specifically and reasonably exempt. It also applies to USCIS immigration records. This means that any person, including foreign nationals, U.S. permanent residents (Green Card holders), and U.S. citizens can request a copy of their USCIS files under the FOIA Act. However, please note that some records and information cannot be released (if it is classified as national security, business proprietary, personal privacy, or investigative).
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
On March 1, 2003, services formerly provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) transitioned into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). In support of the DHS overall mission, the priorities of the USCIS are to promote national security, continue to eliminate immigration case backlogs, and improve customer services. The USCIS is responsible for the administration of immigration and naturalization adjudication functions and establishing immigration services policies and priorities. These functions include:
- Adjudication of immigrant visa petitions
- Adjudication of naturalization petitions
- Adjudication of asylum and refugee applications
- Adjudications performed at the service centers
- All other adjudications performed by the INS
Through a network of local offices, Application Support Centers, Service Centers, local area immigration services field offices, National Customer Service Call (NCSC) Centers, Forms Centers, and the Internet, USCIS processes all immigrant and non-immigrant benefits provided to visitors of the United States, including:
- Family-based petitions -- facilitating the process for close relatives to immigrate, gain permanent residency, work, etc.
- Employment-based petitions -- facilitating the process for current and prospective employees to immigrate or stay in the U.S. temporarily.
- Asylum and Refugee processing -- adjudicating asylum and the processing of refugees.
- Naturalization approving citizenship of eligible persons who wish to become U.S. citizens.
- Special status programs adjudicating eligibility for U.S. immigration status as a form of humanitarian aid to foreign nationals.
- Document issuance and renewal including verification of eligibility, production and issuance of immigration documents.
Know Your Problem
Before contacting understand your problem; and try to know whether your problem involves Department of State, USCIS or the Department of Labor. As there is no central office in the government that processes FOIA requests for all federal agencies. Each agency responds to requests for its own records. This means that you should understand whether your problem involves a visa, a petition requesting permission to enter the United States, or labor certification.
If the problem involves a visa, it probably involves the Department of State, which is the only federal agency than can issue a visa. If the problem involves a petition requesting permission to enter the United States as an immigrant, or under certain circumstances, as a nonimmigrant, such as for employment or as a fiance, the situation involves USCIS. If the problem involves labor certification, it involves the Department of Labor.
There is no initial fee to file a FOIA request. In fact, in the majority of requests made to the Justice Department, no fees are ever charged. However, by law an agency is entitled to charge certain fees, depending on the particular category of FOIA requester that you fall into.
Also one doesn't require a formal FOIA request to obtain information which is routinely available for public inspection, including records from docketed cases, broadcast applications and related files, petitions for rulemakings, various legal and technical publications, legislative history compilations, etc. These information can be obtained by visiting the Department of Justice's website (www.justice.gov).
How to File a FOIA Request
Depending on your situation, it might be advantageous to request a copy of your immigration file before filing any applications or petitions with the USCIS/INS or U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad. By having your file you can be prepared for any questions the immigration officer might ask you, and know exactly what the government knows about you. This is especially important for individuals who have already been to the United States or have filed applications in the past.
However, there are specific procedures to follow when requesting your immigration records under the FOIA. According to the agency, the more specific your FOIA request, the faster the response. To get any USCIS related information, please read and fill up the G-639 form.