According to Records, Not Revenue, “an ad hoc group of genealogists, historians and records access activists,” U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) recently proposed a 492% increase in fees for historical records held by the USCIS Genealogy Program. Until December 16th only **UPDATE; extended to February 10th**, the Federal Rulemaking Portal is accepting comments from the public in support of or in opposition to the proposal.
Why does this matter?
The USCIS is the successor agency to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). Combined, the agencies have dealt with immigration and naturalization for most of the 20th century. In addition to current immigration, USCIS manages historical records of interest to countless genealogists and other researchers. Current fees for copies of those records are $65 for index search and copy of a digitized record, plus $65 if the record is available in paper only. The proposal increases the search fee to $240 for index search and copy of a digitized record, plus $385 if the record is available in paper only—as much as $625 for a single record.
There are five separate records sets under the USCIS Genealogy Program’s purview:
Naturalization certificate files are maintained for anyone naturalized 27 September 1906–31 March 1956. That includes some individuals who were naturalized by way of a husband or parents, soldiers naturalized during service overseas, as well as those who lost their citizenship and were repatriated later. This record set accounts for 7.5 million records: 6 million digitized and 1.5 million in paper only.
Alien registration forms are maintained for all aliens over the age of 14, from 1 August 1940 to 31 March 1944, as are forms for those who immigrated in those years. This record set accounts for 5.6 million records, microfilm copies of which are also held at the National Archives, but with access fully restricted by USCIS.
All aliens arriving in the U.S. were required to have a visa as of 1 July 1924. Those who were issued visas between then and 31 March 1944 should have visa files. The 3.1 million files in this record set exist in paper only. A transfer to the National Archives was scheduled for April 2019, but the status of that transfer is still unknown.
Beginning in 1906, immigrants needed to prove lawful arrival in order to qualify for citizenship. For those who arrived between 29 June 1906 and 1 July 1924, but could not prove such arrival, the Registry Act of 1929 provided an alternate route to naturalization. 250,000 files exist in paper only. A transfer to the National Archives was scheduled for April 2019, but the status of that transfer is still unknown.
Alien Files are generally maintained for those who arrived after 1 April 1944, as well as aliens who arrived before that date, but had contact with INS after that date. Records for those who arrived before 1 May 1951 are currently accessible and available in paper only. Records, Not Revenue reports that USCIS is over four years behind its own schedule to transfer eligible files to the National Archives.
All of these record sets are generally rich in genealogical information. Sample records from each of the sets have been posted to https://www.recordsnotrevenue.com and are available for download.
What can you do?
Make your voice heard in 3 easy steps:
Step 1: Review the proposed rule here and jump to the Genealogy Program section here.
Step 2: Write your comments, addressing the issues listed here or any issue you think is important. See https://www.recordsnotrevenue.com/ for thoughts on how to begin.
Step 3: Send your comments BEFORE 16 DECEMBER 2019 to
- Federal Rulemaking Portaland refer to DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010 and follow instructions for submitting comments; and
- Send a copy of your comments to your US Senators and Representative, and refer to DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010. Tell them you care about preserving access to federal records!
- Be sure to mention the Genealogy Program in your comments. The full proposal includes a number of other suggested changes, so USCIS needs to know what part you object to.
Thanks to NGS member Rich Venezia for alerting us to this issue.
NOTE: The National Genealogical Society is a sponsor of the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC). Its members “meet monthly to advise the genealogical community on ensuring proper access to vital records and on supporting strong records preservation policies and practices.” The next meeting is scheduled for December 5th, after which RPAC expects to make recommendations in response to the proposal. To receive those recommendations, subscribe to the Records Advocate at https://www.recordsadvocate.org. The Advocate will also keep you apprised of other state, federal, and international access issues as they arise.
For more about RPAC, its history, and its recent activities, see Jan Alpert’s “Records Preservation and Access Committee: Working for Genealogists” in the current issue of NGS Magazine.
 Janet A. Alpert, “Records Preservation and Access Committee: Working for Genealogists,” NGS Magazine 45, no. 3 (July–September 2019): 13–17; PDF, NGS Magazine Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/magazine/ : 26 November 2019).