How does the Freedom of Information Act help me get my file?
As a federal agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS - formerly INS), is subject to the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows anyone to obtain their own record in possession of the federal government. Although the government may exempt certain portions of your record, such as government officials identifying information or notes they made in making their decision on your case, most records have to be released upon your request. You may only obtain your own record or possibly that of a deceased family member.
What kind of records can I request?
If you have ever filed an application with Immigration or had an application filed on your behalf, you should be able to obtain a copy of it by filing a Freedom of Information Act Request. The same is true if you were ever detained or refused entry at the border or if you have ever been in deportation or removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge. It is important for an immigration attorney evaluating your case to have all of the information about your history of applications or matters with Immigration.
How do I file a FOIA Request with Immigration?
First you must think about what records you are looking for and which immigration agency might have them. If you are looking for an old application that was previously filed with USCIS or the old INS, then you would file form G-639 with USCIS. You can find this form on the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov by clicking on "Immigration Forms". If you are looking for an incident that occured at the border or an airport when you were entering or attempting to enter the United States, you would use the same G-639 form but you should send it to the separate immigration agency that is in charge of our borders - or Customs and Border Protection (CBP). You should send the form to the CBP office in the city closest to the port of entry where your incident occured. You can find the CBP office addresses on their website at www.cbp.gov.
What if I was before an Immigration Judge?
If you were in deportation or removal proceedings and had a court date or appeared before an Immigration Judge, then you must request your file from the Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is a separate agency from USCIS or CBP. You can file Form DOJ-361 with the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Falls Church, Virginia. The form and the complete address can be found at www.usdoj/eoir/efoia.htm. If you know that you were ordered deported, you may wish to hire an immigration attorney to make the request on your behalf. The attorney can make the request without any reference to your current address, whereas obviously if you make the request yourself you must provide an address for them to send the record to.
How long will it take to receive my records?
Legally, the government is supposed to provide the records within 20 days. However, in reality this never occurs with immigration records. The amount of time it takes to process your request varies greatly among the various agencies you are requesting from. The Executive Office for Immigration Review will typically provide your requested records in 2 - 3 months. Custom and Border Protection (CBP) will take about 3 to 6 months and USCIS is currently taking 12-18 months. These lengthy wait times that go far beyond what the law technically allows are frustrating and unfortunate. However the only way to get around them would be to sue the federal government to force them to comply.
What information about my immigration case do I need to provide in my request?
Remember that you are dealing with a huge federal bureaucracy with millions of case files, so if you have any old documents from the matter that has identifying case numbers provide that information on the FOIA form or even attach a copy to your request. Two important the numbers to provide if you can are either the USCIS Case number from the application you filed, which you can find in the upper left hand corner of most receipt notices, or your "A" number. If you are not sure if you have an A number, look on any old documents to see if you have an 8 or 9 digit number that begins with the letter "A" next to your name on any of your correspondence from Immigration. If you are requesting information from CBP regarding an incident that occured at the border, then you are less likely to have these receipt numbers and your name (or that of any alias used) and your date of birth will be the most important information to provide.