Generally, anyone can request information under FOIA, including non-U.S. citizens, corporations, organizations, or universities. The information requested broadly includes any documents, photos, videos, maps, and electronic records from these federal agencies.
FOIA can be especially helpful in immigration cases, for many different reasons and situations. Often, people want to know exactly why their petition was denied in hopes of successfully meeting all the qualifications if they apply again. FOIA is also helpful for attorneys and the families of individuals to get complete records of immigration proceedings, to determine whether an individual has filed important immigration papers in the past, or even to get copies of your complete immigration file! If you run into any legal issues during your immigration process, FOIA is the way to figure out what the issue may be, and allow your attorney to do their job and try to fix it.
So you might need to file a FOIA in order to request:
- Your own immigration records in your Alien File (A-file)
- The immigration papers for another person
- Or to correct or amend records, you have already submitted
It is important to send your FOIA request to the correct agency. As there are many different types of immigration issues, there are many different locations where you can send your FOIA request, depending on what information you are trying to access.
Common requests to USCIS: Immigration and data statistics, USCIS background investigations, Deportation records, and Detention records.
Common requests to ICE: Detention medical records, Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) requests, and all information contained inside an A-file (alien registration file).
Common requests to the Department of State: Visa requests from non-U.S. citizens wishing to enter the U.S.
As with most procedures with the US Government, there are a few steps you must take to receive the information you’re looking for under FOIA.
- First, you need to identify the information you need. The USCIS website has provided a list of which agency should be contacted depending on the type of information you wish to receive.
- You must file the request to the proper federal agency. Once you have determined the proper federal agency, the next step is to send a written request either by fax or by mail to the proper agency. This information can be found on their websites. The USCIS also accepts the G-639 form, but it is not required.
- The next step is unfortunately waiting. The FOIA requires that the agencies respond within 20 days (excluding holidays and weekends). However, the agency is only required to send you a response as to their decision within those twenty days–it could take more time to actually receive the documents.
- Each agency processes FOIA requests within different timeframes and has different ways of prioritizing information requests under FOIA. The USCIS may take an extra 10 days to send the documents and divides the requests into tiers depending on the importance and time sensitivity of the document.
While FOIA succeeds at revealing what was once hidden to the public, there are certain limitations and not every piece of information falls under FOIA. Information exempt from FOIA include:
- Classified information,
- Internal information regarding personnel rules and agency policy,
- Confidential commercial or trade secrets,
- Records that would be privileged in litigation,
- Certain law enforcement records,
- Information that would invade someone else’s privacy,
- Information related to the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions,
- Material specifically shielded by another law, and
- Certain geographical/geological data
While the purpose of FIOA is for the public to request documents from the United States federal government, in typical government fashion, they do not make this process foolproof. An experienced immigration attorney is crucial to getting the important information you want, in the shortest wait time possible.