Created by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in April 1944, A-Files (Immigration Files) contain all records of any active case of a person not yet naturalized. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), you can request these records to ensure that your information is clear and consistent as you navigate the immigration process. Throughout this article, we will discuss what situations these files can aid, which agencies and procedures should be followed, and finally, provide resources to help you along the way. A successful FOIA request can help to secure your file, which can provide critical documents for obtaining the desired outcome in your U.S. immigration case.
When Will I Need My Immigration File?
Your immigration file includes the complete history regarding your immigration. Not only does this include all pieces of information that you have submitted to immigration agencies previously but also the extent of information and decisions that the government has recorded regarding you and your immigration status.
This can be helpful in several ways such as knowing which application paths to take. Your file can help you understand whether you need to apply for permission to re-enter or why your application was denied, and you were returned to your home country.
Further, the information stored in the file can help ensure your application is consistent with past applications. Accuracy is crucial for approval, and the file contains old addresses or passport information that you might need and no longer have access to.
In cases where a foreign national is looking to apply for asylum, a work visa, a green card, or another immigration benefit, access to this information can boost your chance of success gaining approval.
All in all, the best way to ensure you are prepared in any case or legal proceeding regarding your immigration status or application is to have your file on hand.
It is important to note that there are some situations in which you should not make a FOIA request, in part because the government will reject it and also because the FOIA process would take much longer than is practical. For example, to find out the status of a pending application or petition, visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) case status website or call USCIS's information line at 1-800-375-5283. If you want to check the status of a visa application, contact the U.S. embassy or consulate where you made your application directly. Further, older records, such as Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) records prior to 1982, will not be available through the FOIA process.
How To Request a Copy of Your Immigration File
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act (PA), you can request your own immigration records, someone else’s immigration records (if you have their written permission), and agency policies, data, communications, and records. Luckily, the FOIA process is relatively straightforward. Below we have detailed the steps to take to request your file.
Step 1: Identify the information you need
Step 2: Identify which government agency to submit your FOIA application
Step 3: Make your FOIA request
Bonus Step: Cases of required expedition
Identify the Information You Need
For a better chance of success with your immigration applications, it's important to identify the necessary information and determine if it's included in your Immigration or "A" file. In any legal proceedings regarding your immigration status, an attorney may want to see everything in your file to determine your current status and steps to take moving forward. In cases where past information or applications may have been lost, you can highlight specific documents in your request. For example, if you have forgotten your exact entry date or the approval status of a previous application. In most cases where your immigration status and liberty are not in immediate danger, requesting a full copy of the administrative file can be beneficial.
Identify Which Agency to Submit an Application
Submitting your request to the proper immigration agency is crucial to obtaining a positive answer and all the information that you need with your FOIA request. Below is a short list of agencies and information they may be able to provide.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will have most of the records in an A-File. This includes applications or petitions submitted in the past, all documents attached to those applications (birth certificate or passport), and any materials created by The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), such as internal memos or investigations.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will keep track of every time you have entered or left the country.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will have information about enforcement actions against you. For example, if charges were ever filed against you, they would have these records.
The FBI will have information about federal criminal background checks or any criminal convictions in your background.
The Department of Justice's Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) is where you should make your request if you are in removal proceedings.
If you have questions about which agency to contact for a FOIA request, contact a licensed immigration attorney.
Make Your FOIA Request
Now that we have identified what information we need and where to get it, it is time to submit the application. The following section will highlight the most common government immigration agencies and how to request information from each. It is important that your FOIA request be as specific as possible and give the agency as much information as you can to ensure your request is approved and the information you need is provided.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) handles most requests for a person's A file. This request can be made online directly, which requires going to the agency website and creating an account. It is important to highlight that the online Freedom of Information Act Records System (FIRST) requires responses to the following questions: the purpose of the request, name, aliases, mailing address, country of birth, and information about family members. However, it is possible to file on behalf of another person with consent and verification of their identity.
If you are unable to file a form online, you can download Form G-639 and send it to:
National Records Center (NRC)
P.O. Box 648010
Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010
It is important to note that submitting a physical copy of this form may take longer.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website offers a Public Access Portal, which summarizes the various contact methods. Further, an extensive guide is available online for access to DHS services.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests are obtained by writing a letter detailing what records you need and why you need them or submitting an electronic document through the website. If choosing the written option, you’ll also need to include permission for ICE to access and send you your records.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requests should be submitted online through the website. Note that requests from CBP may take a long time to be returned due to persistent backlog issues.
Before submitting any of the requests linked above, review the document thoroughly. This can help to ensure that your information is accurate and prevent your request from being denied. There are many online application services to file on your behalf that can double-check the information to ensure accuracy and help to ensure your safety throughout the information retrieval process.
Government agencies process requests in the order they are received. However, some requests are more urgent than others. If you are in a situation where your immigration status or liberty is at stake, you might be able to expedite your request and have your A file sent as soon as possible. The Department of Justice encourages agencies to process FOIA requests more quickly when someone’s personal safety or due process rights are at stake. For example, if you are applying for asylum or facing a deportation hearing.
In these cases, prepare a detailed explanation, with supporting proof, of why your life or liberty might be endangered without the information from a FOIA request. In situations where a person is facing immigration court proceedings, you can provide a copy of the court's Notice to Appear or Notice of Hearing alongside your request. Include your contact information, such as email or phone number, so the agent reviewing your request can contact you if they have any questions. Be as specific as you can about what documents you need. This will make it easier and quicker for an agency to process your request. Any details you can include, including your A-Number or the dates of the records, can also be helpful in ensuring a timely request fulfillment.
How Long Does It Take To Receive My Immigration File?
Processing times vary from days to years, depending on how backed up the government is with requests. The actual number of days is not supposed to surpass 20, but in reality, it can take up to 4-6 months for your form to be processed and approved. If your rights or liberty are at stake, or you are facing proceedings before an immigration judge, your forms may be expedited by the government agency as stated above.
You can check the status of your USCIS FOIA request online using the control number given to you when you submitted your request.
Legal Resources for Immigrants
The immigration process can be lengthy and very confusing. Below we have linked a few resources to help guide you along your way. Whether it is an in-depth guide or a non-profit organization, these links should help you to make informed decisions.
Immigrant Legal Resource Center
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) aids immigrants, community organizations, legal professionals, law enforcement, and policymakers in building a society that values the rights of all people. They offer a multitude of resources in many aspects of immigration law. The ILRC’s mission is to protect and defend the fundamental rights of immigrant families and communities.
Website: Immigrant Legal Resource Center
ILRC Link to FOIA Guide
This link is from the same organization as above (ILRC) but will take you directly to their FOIA guide. This PDF will include specific information regarding FOIA requests, such as multiple options for people looking to preserve their privacy while requesting information. Further, information for less common agencies is included in this guide.
Website: FOIA Guide
The FOIA website can help determine if filing a request is the right course of action for you. They can give you additional details about the act and assist you in obtaining your file. There is access to online government libraries and forms and can help you to make your request if needed.
Website: FOIA Website
This non-profit’s process is free to those who qualify and will assist you with the USCIS form and document preparation. They also provide written guides to help navigate the immigration application processes and software to double-check forms to ensure confidence when you submit your documents.
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