What are USCIS Genealogy Program Records & Why Should I Care?

Background: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the successor agency to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), which, along with its predecessors, dealt with immigration and naturalization for most of the twentieth century. In addition to providing immigration and citizenship services today, USCIS maintains millions of historic records on immigrants and citizens. A Genealogy Program was created in 2008 with the goal of helping researchers gain easier and quicker access to these records.

What Records Does This Program Provide Access To?

  • Form AR-2 (Alien Registration Forms): The US Government registered all aliens over the age of 14 resident in the US from 1 August 1940 – 31 March 1944, as well as those who immigrated within that timeframe. These two-page forms provide a great deal of biographical information. All 5.6 million of these records are available on microfilm and have been digitized. These records are also on microfilm at the National Archives, but USCIS fully restricts their access. The Form AR-2 is the only historic USCIS document series fully digitized.
  • C-Files (Naturalization Certificate Files): Anyone who naturalized 27 September 1906 – 31 March 1956 should have a C-File. Some individuals who derived citizenship via a husband or parents have C-Files, as well as soldiers who naturalized while they served overseas in the military. Some individuals who lost their citizenship and later repatriated also have C-Files. About six million of these records were microfilmed and then digitally scanned; and several million are only available as paper copies (especially records from later years). Some C-files are hybrid, having both a digital and paper component, and thousands more were microfilmed but never digitized because of “confidential” restrictions. All C-files are scheduled for destruction in 2056.
  • Visa Files: Beginning 1 July 1924, all aliens arriving in the United States needed a visa to enter the country. Most immigrants who were admitted for permanent residence between 1 July 1924 and 31 March 1944 should have a visa file, which usually includes an application with a photo, vital records, and other documents supplied to obtain the visa. These 3.1 million files are available only as paper copies. These records became eligible for transfer to the National Archives in April 2019 – where they would be available for free public access to researchers. The status of this transfer is unknown.
  • Registry Files: Under the Naturalization Act of 1906, individuals needed to prove lawful admission in order to become a citizen. The Registry Act of 1929 allowed for individuals who arrived between 29 June 1906 and 1 July 1924 and for whom no arrival record could be found to legalize their arrival into the country and move forward with the naturalization process. These files are full of great genealogical information, and often include a photo. These 250,000 files are available only as paper copies. These records became eligible for transfer to the National Archives in April 2019 — where they would be available for free public access to researchers. The status of this transfer is unknown.
  • A-Files (Alien Files): A-Files generally exist for individuals who arrived after 1 April 1944, and for aliens resident in the US before that date who had subsequent contact with the INS. A-Files for individuals with A-numbers below 8 million (those who entered the US before 1 May 1951) are under the purview of the Genealogy Program. A-Files, some of which contain photos, can hold up to dozens or hundreds of pages and contain genealogical information not found elsewhere. These files are available only as paper copies. The records for individuals who were born more than 100 years ago are eligible for transfer to the National Archives, and while 1.9 million of these have been transferred, the majority of the historic A-files are still with the agency. USCIS is years behind in its commitment to transfer these eligible files to the National Archives.

Who Might Show Up In These Records?

Any immigrant who arrived on or after 1 July 1924 would be found in at least one of these record sets. Immigrants who either naturalized on or after 27 September 1906, registered as an alien in 1940, or had contact with INS on or after 1 April 1944 will be found in these records. Broadly, any late-nineteenth or twentieth-century immigrant (pre-1951) is likely to show up in these record sets.

What Will an Index Search Turn Up?

Aside from the five record sets mentioned at left, an index search may also turn up file numbers for additional records and files transferred to the National Archives decades ago. These files, which include correspondence and Board of Special Inquiry appeals, were transferred without any referencing information. Additionally, some names located in the USCIS Index Search will be for immigrants who were never made to register as aliens or who died before 1940.

Who Uses These Records?

Genealogists and family historians who are interested in their immigrant ancestors frequently access these records. Individuals who wish to avail of their right to dual citizenship with other countries often use these files to prove eligibility for that citizenship. Probate attorneys, and others who work in the heir-searching field, may use these files to prove heredity. Other fee-paying customers of the USCIS Genealogy program include students, scholars, sociologists, and more. Anyone interested in immigrants who arrived in the United States since the late 19th century has an interest in the historical records held by the USCIS Genealogy Program.

These Records Aren’t Relevant To Me. Why Should I Care?

Many governmental agencies still hold countless records that will one day be of interest to family historians (if they aren’t already). If USCIS is allowed to go through with their rule to make these records much more difficult to access via significant fee hikes, who’s to say other governmental agencies wouldn't follow suit? Attempts to make one record set less accessible should make any researcher in any field nervous. This is precisely why we are calling for USCIS to complete the work necessary to transfer these historical records to the National Archives.