U.S. immigration records are set to jump from $130 to $625 -- take action to stop this

+18 votes
260 views

I didn't see this posted yet on Wikitree, I apologize if I missed a previous post.  This should be of interest to any of us working on genealogy in the United States.  I apologize if it is inappropriate to post on this topic on g2g.

The public comment period on a proposed 392% rate increase for access to immigration records in the public domain ends on 16 Dec 2019. If you care about public access to immigration records for genealogy, please comment on the Federal Register site along with the the hundreds of people who have already responded. 

Below is a summary of the issue from Records Not Revenue, which goes into detail about the proposal.  For a supporting opinion, see this blog post from the Legal Genealogist.

On 14 November 2019, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed a sudden and unprecedented 492% increase in fees required to access historical records held by the USCIS Genealogy Program. Many of these records should already be publicly accessible under the law. USCIS is essentially holding them hostage, demanding individuals pay exorbitant and unjustifiable fees to access documents of our immigrant ancestors.

All researchers should care about the issues involved, even if your research does not include these historical records. What can be done to one type of record can be done to others!

Thank you for reading and responding.

in Requests for Project Volunteers by Heather Husted G2G6 Mach 5 (54.8k points)
Thanks for sharing this info, Heather. The proposed fee increases are huge!

I looked at the notice for details.

Currently, they charge $65 for a genealogy index search and $65 to supply a genealogy record, and the new charges would be $240 and $385, respectively. Thus, the cost of a request for one immigration record could go from $130 to $625.

I'm even more alarmed by the huge proposed increases in fees to apply for U.S. citizenship (only the wealthy will be able to qualify!), but these proposed increases for immigration records also are excessive. They say this is to recover their costs, but I can't help but think that the high costs must be due to inefficiency, unnecessary paperwork, and (in the case of applicants for residency and citizenship) government harassment of applicants.

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Hi Heather,

Thanks for sharing - also, here's a prior related post.

Thank you for the heads up. I'd heard about this earlier from my mother and I was furious! Why are they charging us  fees to get access to the records we use or don't use?
Because they can.  They hoped to slide that budged through and hoped that no one would notice.  Only through publicity and bad press will they reverse their position.
Thank you to everyone who took action! I appreciate you.
Since many immigration records are already available at secondary sources such as Ancestry, specifically what years and what documents does USCIS still retain exclusive control over? Since records for anyone living or recently deceased where personal and private information might be found and thus cannot be released, what records are we talking about that would only be available through USCIS?

At what age are these records transferred to the National Archive?

USCIS has raised fees for everything in the last decade, sometimes by amounts that seems outrageous. Considering how little of what they have may be digitized (the ability to file anything with them digitally is relatively recent), there may be more human effort involved in retrieving, copying and providing records than some may be aware. A simple work permit can run 100+ pages (I've filed many of them) and green card and citizenship applications far more. That's not a defense of the new fees, just an observation.

A fellow family researcher said this: 

She said:

"I just got an email from Reclaim the Records, and they are talking to their lawyers about this.  Apparently, a lot of these records should have been turned over to NARA a while ago, but they urge everyone to comment on the https://www.recordsnotrevenue.com/? page in the hopes that they can in the short term stop the increase while they work on the long term to release the records."

  1. Go to https://www.recordsnotrevenue.com/?  (Yes, the question mark is part of the URL). Read the information.
  2. Open another tab with the writing prompts at: https://www.recordsnotrevenue.com/conversation-starters/ (A few of them were blended together by Cheri Mello).
  3. Then submit it via their portal. This must be done by DECEMBER 16th! 

The deadline has been pushed out to 30 Dec 2019 but I believe they have been overwhelmed by emails as they currently say you have to mail it in (snail mail). 

It's great to learn there are records that should have already been turned over to NARA.

7 Answers

+10 votes
 
Best answer
Just posted my comment on federalregister.gov:

I am strongly opposed to the part of this regulation pertaining to the fees for genealogical searches and documents, which will be almost double the current fees and in many situations would be subject to an even larger increase.  It is totally unsatisfactory that the rationale for such large increases is so minimized in the proposed regulation: "The proposed fees are based on results from the same ABC model used to calculate other immigration benefit request fees proposed in this rule." This is completely opaque. Having used many statistical models, I know the output of such a model is only as good as the data that went into it *and* the knowledge of the person using the model. I don't trust that both of these factors were thoroughly vetted when zero information about either is given in the proposed regulation. Such a drastic proposed increase should have set off red flags that made people reevaluate the data and models that were used.

But suppose I give the benefit of the doubt that the activies-based cost model was reasonably implemented in computing these fees. I must conclude that there is an extremely low volume of these records requests combined with highly paid staff in charge of them who spend a lot of time idle because of the lack of volume. I know many professional and otherwise expert genealogists, and many of them did not even know about your service until the proposed rule change. It would seem to me the more sensible course of regulation, rather than increasing fees so drastically, is to modestly advertise your service so as to increase the volume of requests. The increased revenue as a result would work better to offset costs than the draconian fee hike being proposed.

But to give the benefit of the doubt, it must be earned. Instead, it seems something more nefarious may be happening. I would like to know why these records aren't *free* to people requesting them using the Freedom of Information Act? And if not that, then why haven't copies of these records been placed at the National Archives? This regulation seems like it could be a move to use public records for revenue generation. America is a nation of immigrants and their descendants. Most of these immigrants appear in some way in the genealogical documents that are being affected. Thes fee hikes go against the very spirit of what it means to be American.
by Barry Smith G2G6 Pilot (163k points)
selected by Edison Williams
+10 votes
Rather disgusting.  Surely there are more ways to streamline processes rather than increase rates so much.
by Kathy Rabenstein G2G6 Pilot (247k points)
+11 votes

It would be nice if USCIS was the next target and all of the records were released and saved to a non-profit server:

https://www.wikitree.com/g2g/877993/profit-effort-release-publish-federal-state-local-records

by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)
+9 votes
My comment: Increasing the fees would do more harm than good. I do not support this as everyone should have the right to easily look up information on their family. Everyone deserves to know where they came from and what information about their family is out there. There shouldn't be this high a fee on family history.
by Chris Ferraiolo G2G6 Pilot (389k points)
You make a good point.  If they lowered the fees, they would probably get a lot more lookups and might even have an increase in revenue.  Even if the revenue was the same, you would have a happier populace.  Unfortunately, most bureaucrats don't have a business background.
+1 vote
Sorry to "get political", but it seems obvious that politics are at play here.

We've seen it before on this very forum, several times a year - the usual people who make hay calling everybody and anybody racist have made it abundantly clear that they consider looking up one's roots to be some sort of act of white privilege/supremacy. Of course, these are the same people screaming that the very idea of having a government process controlling immigration (which these records document) is "immoral" in the first place.

The new fee structure is obviously designed to make these documents virtually inaccessible (in a way where they can still claim that they're accessible). That's aimed at US, specifically, to keep us from doing what we do.

We pay taxes specifically to have the government take care of such things for us. If they want to charge a nominal fee (to assure such requests reasonable and non-trivial), that's fine, but that's obviously NOT what's going on here. The bureaucratic BS they'll sell you is just cover - don't buy it for a minute.
by Frank Stanley G2G6 Mach 6 (63.7k points)
Funny, to me the obvious conclusion is that this is the product of incompetent modelers. I guess I’ve encountered a bunch of them, while you’ve encountered in your life instead a bunch of amoral bureaucrats. Obviousness seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

And if I see any politics and prejudice at play here, it's prejudice against immigrants. As a white person with deep roots in America, I have no need for U.S. immigration records to document my ancestry, so this doesn't affect me (although I do have family members with more recent immigrant roots).

In addition to the absurd fees for genealogical records for people whose ancestors came more recently than mine did, this fee schedule includes exorbitant charges for living people who currently are immigrants and want to live in the country or become U.S. citizens: $1,170 for an application for naturalization, $1,600 for an "Application to Preserve Residence for Naturalization Purposes," $545 for "Application for Replacement Naturalization/Citizenship Document," $1,015 for "Application for Certificate of Citizenship," and more... But I suppose people are supposed to be grateful that they want to reduce the fee for "Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card" from $455 to $415.

+3 votes
So, I was skimming over the federal register as linked to in the question, where it goes into all kinds of details and something caught my eye. What is this "transfer of funding to ICE"? Is that what this is about? Funding ICE? I'm finding this very concerning for reasons I am not going into on this forum, but I hope we Americans are all paying very close attention.
by Sarah Mason G2G6 Mach 4 (42.2k points)
+1 vote
NO - UNDER THE FOIA THESE ARE FREE TO ACCESS AND/OR RECIEVE - MY/OUR TAX DOLLARS PAY FOR THE PROCESS - WHEN CHARGED IT CONSTITUTES A FORM OF DOUBLE TAXATION
by Joan Hammond G2G Rookie (260 points)

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