Issues of Access, Transparency and Efficiency

US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) maintains millions of historical records of significant value to genealogists, researchers, and historians. Access to these records is currently controlled by the fee-based USCIS Genealogy Program and/or the USCIS Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act (FOIA/PA) program.

In 2007, USCIS should have begun transfer of a copy of the MiDAS system, including the INS Master Index Soundex, to the National Archives (NARA).1 The transfer of this system would have laid the groundwork for the efficient and regular handover of records from USCIS to NARA. Prior to accepting a records transfer, NARA requires an agency to provide a serviceable index of names and/or file numbers.2 Until this long-overdue transfer of MiDAS is complete, NARA cannot accept a transfer of USCIS’ historic records. USCIS and NARA must work together to transfer the MiDAS system immediately.

In the meantime, fee-paying customers bear the brunt of USCIS’ mismanagement of the Genealogy Program, ranging from multi-year wait times to reports of lost records or files not found. Problems with the USCIS Genealogy Program continue unabated. USCIS has done nothing to demonstrate to its customers that it has addressed issues related to access, transparency, or efficiency.

Access

USCIS does not provide adequate access to historical records and information.

  • The 2024 revisions to the Genealogy Program will result in some requesters receiving documents faster, but only if the documents have been previously digitized (AR-2 Forms and some C-Files). Millions of documents held by USCIS exist only on paper, and it is often impossible to know whether or not the record of interest is on paper or digitized. Some requestors may also only receive the digitized component of a record, even when there is also be a paper component.
  • USCIS refers the majority of Genealogy Program Records Requests to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officers for processing. Many response letters received from the Genealogy Program are signed by FOIA staff. The Genealogy Program was created to unburden FOIA staff. If USCIS considers Genealogy Program requests to be FOIA requests, researchers should not pay any fees other than standard FOIA fees.
  • A USCIS Index Search must be conducted to obtain the file numbers for records that have been in NARA custody for decades – namely, the INS Subject & Policy Files. Under the revised fees, the USCIS Genealogy Program will continue to charge customers to obtain a file number for a record already at NARA.

Transparency

USCIS does not provide accurate, complete, or timely information to the public about the Genealogy Program.

  • In 2021, USCIS implemented a new effort to provide cycle time transparency for many immigration and naturalization forms, yet completely overlooked the forms used by the Genealogy Program, despite repeated requests by advocates for them to be included. Even as wait times increase exponentially, USCIS offers no specific data on processing times for Index Searches and Records Requests, Genealogy Program fee costing, or Genealogy Program staffing numbers.
  • USCIS provides no information nor data on why it takes 245 business days for an Index Search and 275 business days for a Records Request – the longest wait times in the Genealogy Program's history.3
  • USCIS cannot accurately determine how many staff work on the Genealogy Program, noting “approximately 6 genealogy positions,”4 in the final rule, and explaining that staff in the Genealogy Program “also performs other functions, such as FOIA operations, retrieving, storing, and moving files.” This suggests there are no dedicated staff who work full time for the Genealogy Program – a direct contradiction of their statement from 2020.6
  • USCIS misleads customers in its suggestion that up to 70% of its index search requests will result in digitized records provided via the new digital delivery method. However, the majority of the records serviced through the USCIS Genealogy Program are not digitized. Additionally, some requestors require copies of paper records for legal purposes, and the published rule provides no guidance on how to obtain paper copies.

Efficiency

USCIS does not provide quality service in searching for, locating, or releasing historical records.

  • The wait time for an Index Search now takes 7 times longer than in 2020. The wait time for record copies takes 5.5 times longer. Based on current numbers, an Index Search followed by a Records Request can take nearly 3 years to complete.6
  • Despite announcing numerous efforts to reduce processing backlogs, USCIS fails to explain how it plans to reduce the Genealogy Program’s backlog – even after multiple requests to the Office of Public Engagement for information.
  • The Genealogy Program provides letters to individuals when a record is missing, claiming ongoing records reconciliation and auditing procedures – and yet can provide no data whatsoever on these auditing procedures or projects.
  • Visa Files and Registry Files, became eligible for transfer to NARA in April 2019. USCIS is not abiding by the records schedules it agreed to, and does not seem to work effectively with NARA to solve the issue.
  • A-Files of immigrants born more than 100 years ago should be at NARA, as per USCIS' 2009 records schedule. Records Not Revenue analysis suggests that at minimum, 55% of eligible A-files have not transferred.
Graph of the USCIS Genealogy Program wait time

1 The transfer should include the operational means by which to effectively search the data it contains. The MiDAS System schedule N1-566-06-002, see item 1(b). After the initial transfer, the NARA copy was supposed to receive periodic updates.
2 https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/accessioning/finding-aid.html
3 USCIS "Request Status," https://www.uscis.gov/records/genealogy/genealogical-records-help/request-status, accessed 6 March 2024. Note that USCIS has not provided updated data since 28 December 2022.
4 See https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2024-01427/p-1831, accessed 12 March 2024.
5 See https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2020-16389/p-828.
6 See the Wait Time Chart created by RecordsNotRevenue.com. Data available by request.