Council of State Archivists Statement on United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) Fee Increases

Dec 19, 2019

The Council of State Archivists will be posting this statement as a comment on the Federal Register on the proposed rule for increasing fees to access the historic public records of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).  We ask that our members consider posting a comment on this proposed rule as well.
 

Council of State Archivists Statement on United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) Fee Increases 

 
The Council of State Archivists (CoSA) opposes the proposed changes to the fees for accessing the historic public records of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). These changes, outlined in the agency’s proposed rule-making under Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010, seek to increase the fee for the agency to search the Master Index of the Genealogy Program from $65 to $240 and the fee to request a record from $65 to $385.  
 
CoSA opposes the fee increase and proposes that USCIS instead transfer the records to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). At NARA, these records can be managed more efficiently, accessed more freely, and reproduced more economically, as preserving and providing access to historical records of the federal government is one of NARA’s core missions and areas of expertise.
 
These fees represent increases of 269% and 492% from existing fees, which were already significantly increased from their previous iteration in 2016, when the fees stood at $20 and $35 respectively. USCIS provides the following justification for the fee increases: “Ultimately, these changes are intended to allow USCIS to provide genealogy search results and historic records more quickly when pre-existing digital records exist”. Further, the agency notes:
 
“The proposed fees for Forms G-1041 and G-1041A are $240 and $385 respectively. They are based on the projected costs and volumes of the genealogy program. The projected costs include a portion of Lockbox costs and an estimated staffing requirement for genealogy workload. …. As such, the proposed fees each represent the average staff time required to complete the request, similar to most other fees proposed in this rule.”
 
CoSA is concerned about diminished access to these records.  Prior to 2008, they were accessible via FOIA request for the cost of photocopying. At that time, the genealogy program was created, with increased copying costs and an additional new cost to search the index to discover if records even exist. The current fees are higher than DHS’ own fees for FOIA requests. 
 
As the organization of state archives, our members are very familiar with managing large data sets and making them accessible to the public, genealogists, and other researchers.  Access is done in compliance with state freedom of information laws, at reasonable costs, and with reasonable time frames for response.  State archives have demonstrated that this can be done in a cost-effective and efficient manner without excessive or prohibitive charges to our citizens.  NARA is similarly successful in responding to records requests.
 
The proposed fees are also substantially higher than those charged by other federal agencies, including NARA and DHS or in state government agencies, for similar access, searching, and records reproduction. A charge of $240 to merely search an index is unacceptably high. Compared to standard DHS costs and timeframes for FOIA requests (which, at their highest, are $10.25 for 15 minutes of managerial staff time), this fee would equal 6 hours of searching the Master Index, when most index searches should be able to be completed in an hour or less.
 
CoSA members certainly understand and have experience with the challenges associated with maintaining a large, complex set of records and recovering costs to reproduce those records for public access.  These proposed fees undercut the intent of the Freedom of Information Act and would undoubtedly restrict access to these records to only those with significant financial means. 
 
In summary, CoSA urges USCIS to  reconsider these fee increases. The existing fees ($65 for searching the index and $65 for reproducing records) are already quite high compared to existing fees in federal and state government and were significantly increased from their original levels. CoSA believes that a fee increase of this size does not support government accountability and public access. Additionally, CoSA urges that USCIS work with NARA to transfer the historical records of the agency to the National Archives, which has a clear statutory mandate, and existing expert processes in place to effectively and efficiently preserve and provide access to USCIS records. 
 
About COSA
 
The Council of State Archivists (CoSA) is a nonprofit membership organization of the state and territorial government archives in the fifty states, five territories, and District of Columbia. Through collaborative research, education, and advocacy, CoSA provides leadership that strengthens and supports state and territorial archives in their work to preserve and provide access to government records. CoSA facilitates networking, information sharing, and project collaboration among its member organizations to help state and territorial government archives with their responsibilities for protecting the rights and historical documents of the American people. Read more at www.statearchivists.org.
 


Tags: Advocacy
Category: Advocacy

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