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05 June 2009

A-Files Update

On Wednesday, June 3, 2009, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services USCIS and the National Archives and Records Administration NARA held a formal joint signing ceremony in Washington, D.C. to "designate as permanent the immigration files created on the millions of aliens residing in the United States in 1944, as well as those arriving since then." The NARA press lease described the significance:

These Alien Case Files (commonly referred to as A-Files) document the famous, the infamous, the anonymous and the well-known, and are an historical and genealogical goldmine. The new agreement authorizes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services/Department of Homeland Security to send A-files to the National Archives when 100 years have passed since the birthdate of the subject of a file. The National Archives expects to receive the first transfer of A-files later this year, and will store the files at National Archives facilities in San Francisco and Kansas City. Researchers will be able to access the files at these two sites, or request copies of files. An index will be available to support research use.
CGS member Jeanie W. Chooey Low has been a tireless advocate for the A-Files and active member of "Save Our National Archives" SONA, an ad hoc group formed in 1998 when the Regional NARA were threatened with closure. Jeanie was concerned that the recent publicity, including the USA Today article, made no mention of SONA's ten years of advocacy nor the major contribution of the late Congressman Tom Lantos, California. She sent this:

After ten years of SONA (Save OUR National Archives) advocating to the USCIS and NARA to schedule the accessioning of the Alien Files (A-Files), those two agencies now have an agreement to transfer custody of these invaluable immigration case files from USCIS to NARA. Then too, a major victory was gained by the NARA agreeing that for all time the Alien-Files in the Pacific Region would be allowed to remain at the NARA Leo Ryan Building in San Bruno, CA.

It is the only part of the A-Files in the nation to have "escaped" consolidation to Missouri, and instead be retained as a permanent collection of the Pacific Region National Archives as a local Bay Area treasure.

Under the Alien Registration Act of 1940, all aliens in the United States were required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as the USCIS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service). The Alien Registration Files (A-files) are the detailed evidentiary records collected for each of these registered individuals. The contents within these files may include photographs, birth and marriage certificates, visas, employment records, transcripts of testimony, personal artifacts, and other important biographical and historical information.

Although the A-files were first started in the 1940s, some of the A-files contain much older information that was collected and consolidated from earlier entries back and forth through ports of entry into America. For example, the immigration records (e.g. like those from the Chinese Exclusion Act era) that are currently available for public research and viewing at NARA, San Bruno (known as Record Group 85 case files) go as far back as the late 1800s.

The A-files stored at San Bruno are a valuable collection of historic immigration records from the Port of San Francisco, Honolulu, Nevada and Northwest. These A-files not only include records of Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion period, but also records of such people as German, Italian, and Japanese WW II alien internees; Holocaust survivors; Filipino Freedom Fighters; WWII “war brides”; immigrants from many different regions of Eastern Europe and the Pacific Islands.

In 1998, USCIS began consolidating all of its A-files at a non-research NARA facility in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. At that time a group of educational institutions, researchers, history and genealogical organizations, non-profit organizations, and individuals got together to form SONA (Save OUR National Archives). Their original goal was to prevent the closure of local NARA facilities but it was transformed into a coalition to make sure that the non-current A-files are transferred from the authority of USCIS to NARA so that they can be permanently preserved and made accessible to the public by database. 
For the past 10 years, SONA, under the leadership of former Congressman Tom Lantos (previously representing San Mateo) and others, were able to demand the A-files be stored at San Bruno and never move to Lee’s Summit. Indeed, USCIS has admitted the Pacific Region A-Files are the “lone exception” being the only A-Files that have not been moved to Missouri. However, since the A-files are still under the authority of USCIS, they are not viewable without submission of a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and are subject to possible censure to protect the privacy and/or government sensitivities as determined by USCIS officials.

What is so significant about the accessioning of the A-Files from USCIS to NARA is to make them part of the nation's permanent historic records and guarantee their availability to the public for all time. Government documents are not automatically preserved.

When a government agency such as USCIS normally retires its older documents, NARA must evaluate these records for their historical value before they can be considered for inclusion in NARA’s permanent collection. Approximately 98% of all the records produced by our national government are not preserved by NARA and the A-files were among those originally designated for destruction.

Thus, after 10 years of constant community clamor and support from a wide range of organizations as diverse and far as Australia, the two agencies have finally come to an agreement for the Alien Files to transfer from USCIS to NARA for protection and preservation for future generations of scholars, researchers and family genealogists of many nationalities.