Researchers with an interest in immigration and naturalization might be familiar with US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS) and the Genealogy Program launched back in 2008. What might be less well known was the reason for the creation of the program, which was to provide “a dedicated queue for genealogists, historians and others seeking genealogical and historical records and reference services that generally require no FOIA expertise. As a result, USCIS will provide more timely responses to requests for records of deceased individuals.”
While response times ebbed and flowed during the first decade of the Genealogy Program’s operation, today’s reality demonstrates anything but a timely response. Currently, an Index Search request averages 245 business days for a result. The subsequent Records Request averages an astounding 275 business days to provide record copies. That’s more than two years, start to finish, to obtain records once promised in less than 90 days. Worryingly, more and more people receive correspondence telling them their file cannot be located. Some correspondence to Genealogy Program customers shows their files received extensive FOIA review, exactly what the creation of the program sought to avoid.
Now (January 2023) USCIS proposes changes to the fees for the Genealogy Program, as well as changes to the operational structure of the program. USCIS claims the need for enormous fee hikes reflects the cost to operate the Genealogy Program. It also claims the structural changes “might” improve the wait time to receive records, but only if records have been “previously digitized.”
What the proposed fee hikes will do, if adopted, is certain: make access to historical immigration records unaffordable to most Americans. What the proposed structural changes will do, if adopted, is certain: mislead customers to think that they might receive all the records with one payment of $100. The reality, though, is that only one of the five document types serviced by the Genealogy Program is fully digitized.
Back in 2020, USCIS promised to “transfer more files to NARA [National Archives] in the near future,”  yet only a small number of non-historic A-files have transitioned to NARA custody. Many historic files remain inaccessible on warehouse shelves because USCIS’ management of its historic records is quite simply, a mess. Over decades, USCIS put fixing this problem in the “too hard bucket” and now it expects customers to pay the price – up to 269% more than current fees.
These records should be at the National Archives, but it’s not as simple as calling in moving trucks. USCIS seems unwilling or unable to provide NARA the finding aids and index for the records in a usable format. USCIS cannot simply dump records at NARA’s doorstep and expect NARA to fix the problem USCIS created. The resulting stalemate means it is virtually impossible to access records of 20th century immigration.
Speak out! RecordsNotRevenue.com provides all the details on issues of access, efficiency and transparency with the USCIS proposed rule. RecordsNotRevenue.com has suggestions on how to craft a comment, and shows you the steps to take. Join RecordsNotRevenue.com in telling USCIS to get their records management act together. Ask USCIS to present to the public a real plan to fix the two-year (plus!) backlog. Expect USCIS to coordinate with NARA to create a plan to transition these historical records in a manner that makes them serviceable to the public.
The comment period ends 6 March 2023. Visit RecordsNotRevenue.com and take action today!
 https://www.uscis.gov/records/genealogy/genealogical-records-help/request-status, last updated 28 Dec 2022; accessed 9 February 2023.
 https://www.uscis.gov/records/genealogy/genealogical-records-help/record-requests-frequently-asked-questions, accessed 9 February 2023.
 The digitized series, known as Alien Registration forms (AR-2), came into use in 1940. Some Certificate files (C-files) are digitized. All other documents – A-files, Visa Files and Registry Files – would be subject to the $240 per document fee.
 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements, published 3 Aug 2020. https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2020-16389/p-830, accessed 6 January 2023.
 https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/accessioning/finding-aid.html, accessed 9 February 2023; and MiDAS System schedule N1-566-06-002, see item 1(b). After the initial transfer, the NARA copy was supposed to receive periodic updates.
 The full text of the mission statement of the National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/about/info/mission, accessed 10 Feb 2023.