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10 February 2021

A big win for access to immigration records

Alien Registration File for Raymond Hiroshi Hirai.
Courtesy of Rina Hirai.

A hard-fought battle to keep records affordable has resulted in victory. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) has backed off a proposed "astronomical increase" in fees for copies of records essential to immigration research.

In late 2019, genealogists and other research advocates sounded the alarm about a proposed increase of fees for USCIS records. Rich Venezia, founder of Records Not Revenue, spearheaded the campaign to protest the fee increases, spurring nearly 40,000 individuals to post comments on the agency's website. We wrote about the issue at the time, detailing the ways in which increased fees would effectively put this unique resource for immigration records out of reach for many researchers. CGS members Grant Din and Linda Okazaki were among those active in spreading the word, and the California Genealogical Society board wrote a letter opposing the fee change, along with hundreds of other genealogical societies, historical organizations, and genealogists around the country.

The proposed fee increases also would have applied to visa and immigration filing fees, increasing hardship for current immigrants, as well as hobbling their access to their A-Files to defend against removal, apply for immigration benefits, and naturalize. A recent article on the website Immigration Access details the judge's ruling in December 2020 which ordered USCIS to make those records available in a timely fashion. On February 2, President Biden issued an Executive Order directing that agencies should promote access to the legal immigration system and specifically calling out the proposed fee increase.

The work continues for access to immigration records. Genealogist Judy Russell points out that there may still be a fee increase in the future. Many people have asserted that these are public records that should be available through the National Archives. Records Not Revenue is working on strategies to push USCIS to get these records to NARA. The story continues. Meanwhile, congratulations to Grant and Linda and everyone who lent their name to this effort!

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