On December 6, 2010, the Ombudsman's Office hosted a public teleconference on "FOIA: How Is It Working for You?" where the Ombudsman's Office interviewed Terry Sloan, Acting Center Director, National Records Center and Jill Eggleston, the Assistant Center Director of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Operations for the National Records Center at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Inquiries to the Ombudsman's Office have identified FOIA requests as an area where the public continues to experience frustration in relation to citizenship and immigration services. Please direct any inquiries related to the topics raised in this teleconference to Margaret Gleason, Senior Advisor to the Ombudsman, at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a concern with your USCIS FOIA request and have been unable to resolve the issue with USCIS, the Ombudsman's Office may be able to help.
Freedom of Information Act
Under the FOIA statute, "any person" may request documents from a U.S. government agency. This applies to both U.S. citizens and to citizens of foreign countries. The law allows 20 business days for response to a FOIA request. USCIS has been unable to make that deadline to date, although processing has improved in the past few years. Agencies may withhold information from a FOIA requester under certain exemptions. The law does not allow an agency to withhold information for other reasons, such as possible embarrassment to the agency.
USCIS Processing of FOIA Requests
USCIS FOIA processing is consolidated at the National Records Center (NRC). Prior to 2005, FOIA requests were decentralized, and could be handled on the local level by USCIS. In FY 2006, USCIS had a backlog of more than 88,000 FOIA requests. Jill Eggleston reported in the teleconference that in FY 2010 the backlog was down to 8,000 cases.
There are currently 120 NRC employees, with 30 more new employees authorized for hiring in 2011. Ms. Eggleston informed teleconference participants that current USCIS processing times for FOIA requests vary according to the type of request and that USCIS sorts FOIA requests into three separate tracks. Ms Eggleston also noted the processing time for each type of request.
- Track One FOIA Requests, or simple document requests, are those that request only a specific document, such as a copy of a particular immigration petition.
Processing time: 43 working days
- Track Two FOIA Requests are those where an entire file is requested.
Processing time: 34 working days
- Track Three FOIA Requests are those requests where the individual has a pending hearing scheduled before the Immigration Court.
Processing time: 59 working days
In the FOIA Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2009, the processing times published for USCIS show an average processing time of 215 business days for Track One FOIA requests, 344 business days for Track Two FOIA requests, and an average of 60 business days for Track Three FOIA Requests.
USCIS FOIA Process
As stated on the teleconference, FOIA requests to USCIS can be made with a Form G-639 (PDF - 2 pages, 100 KB) or by written request submitted by mail to USCIS NRC, P.O. Box 648010, Lee's Summit, Mo. 64064-8010; or by fax to 816-350-5785. Most FOIA requests are free, but if fees exceed $25, the requester will be notified in advance of such a charge. Ms. Eggleston stated that a web-based request system would be established in the near future and will be rolled out in two phases: Phase One will be for media requests, while Phase Two will be for all other requests. Currently, the status of a FOIA request can be checked with an NRC receipt number through the FOIA link on www.uscis.gov.
Appeals of USCIS FOIA denials or material withheld under FOIA exemptions may be filed to USCIS FOIA Appeals, 150 Space Center Loop, Lee's Summit, Mo. 64064-2139.
As noted in the teleconference, more information on filing FOIA requests with other Department of Homeland Security components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is available at www.dhs.gov/foia.
By regulation, there are narrow expedite criteria that may allow a requester priority to receive a FOIA response. Expedites will only be granted for cases that present an imminent threat to life or safety requiring the FOIA response, or where there is an urgency to inform the public.
Overall, FOIA requests are handled on a first-come, first-served basis, which is only differentiated based on the three tracks described above, or the occasional expedite case.
In response to questions from callers on the teleconference, Ms. Eggleston stated that certain information is required with a FOIA request to verify identity including name, address, date of birth, and place of birth. Without this information, a FOIA request is incomplete. If information in a file is incorrect, a Form G-639 (PDF - 2 pages, 100 KB) can be used to correct information under the Privacy Act. Another caller asked if USCIS could retrieve an envelope with a postmark from a particular file under FOIA. This documentation might be needed to support an application for adjustment of status under . Ms. Eggleston stated that there is a separate receipt file where payments to USCIS are recorded. If a receipt is requested, the FOIA request should specify that the NRC should search the alien's receipt file.
If records are requested on behalf of a child, Ms. Eggleston stated that names of parents will be requested, and USCIS may ask for proof of parent or guardian relationship before sending information to that party.
Ms. Eggleston said that sometimes in denying FOIA requests for persons with final removal orders, USCIS invokes the 'fugitive disentitlement doctrine' under Meddah v. Reno, No. 98-1444, (E.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 1998). She also said that her office may refer such FOIA requests to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).