On May 30th, USCIS announced the launch of an online processing system, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Immigration Records SysTem (FIRST). The online platform will allow users to submit, manage, accept FOIA requests online. Previously, FOIA requests only were processed through mail, fax, and email; documents were then transferred via mailed compact disc. USCIS will phase in the new processing system in the next coming months.
The FOIA allowed for greater government transparency and provided individuals with greater autonomy with their personal records. FOIA requests can be especially helpful for individuals who need a copy of their personal records, that may have been lost or damaged over the years. A FOIA request can also provide essential evidence for status renewal or adjustment of status. Files received from FOIA requests may also contain notes from adjudicating USCIS officers, which can be helpful for pending cases. Those with a coming appearance before an immigration judge will receive expedited documents if the requester presents evidence of the notice of appearance.
Benefits to Users
Through this new system, those who need to request a file permitted by the FOIA may create an account within myUSCIS to receive their file digitally. Through myUSCIS, users will receive notices regarding the status of their request. This online system will lower the associated costs of receiving and responding to FOIA requests through mail. This service is currently activated for those with myUSCIS accounts
The next phase of implementation, expected to roll out in the coming month, will feature an independent online service. Through this digital delivery option, the system will be open to all FOIA and Privacy Act requests. Once USCIS build out the digital platform, all stages of the FOIA request process will be available online (from initial request to document delivery). The announcement follows a series of initiatives from USCIS to increase paperless processing.
Over the years, copies of important records and documents are lost or damaged. A FOIA request can help restore lost copies and provide evidence of immigration history, which is necessary for status renewal or adjustment of status. Those seeking records may also benefit from obtaining access to materials of adjudication from previous cases (like notes from USCIS officers). Accessing these materials may aid in expediting pending or future immigration cases.
How to Make a FOIA Request
There are a variety of ways to request documents under FOIA, however the process may be difficult to navigate. Each request for an immigration document is filed through the agency designated to that particular record. For example, one must request an A-file (alien file) through USCIS by submitting a Form G-639, while CBP processes requests for I-94 records. It may take a long time before a request is processed. A high-volume request may take longer to process than a more directed request that require only a few documents, so the timeline of each request varies drastically.
Records NOT Covered Under FOIA
The Freedom of Information/ Privacy Act does not allow for complete access to all documents held by government agencies. FOIA contains 9 exceptions that include protections of individual privacy, national security, and trade secrets. If an immigration case is currently under investigation by a federal agency, like the FBI, the documents and records will not be public under FOIA.
It is crucial to possess required records and documents for your immigration case. FOIA facilitates freedoms of information, but in a complex and convoluted manner. It can be difficult to know which documents you need, and from what federal agencies. Sharma Law Offices can assist you with navigating your FOIA request for records.