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USCIS proposes big fee increase

In genealogy, as in everything else in our lives, There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

And, The Legal Genealogist regrets to report, sometimes lunch gets downright expensive.

As all of us who need records from the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly INS) are about to see, and in the very near future.

USCISUSCIS has proposed a major increase in its genealogy program service fees and, while the proposal is only in the proposal stage right now, the likelihood that the fee increase won’t happen is somewhere between zip and zero.

So we need to be prepared — and, if we can, to act now, before the fee increase takes effect.

Here’s the deal.

USCIS holds some of the most genealogically valuable records on the planet if we have immigrant ancestors who came to the US or created immigration- or naturalization-related records in the 20th century. These include the Naturalization Certificate Files (C-Files), from September 27, 1906 to March 31, 1956; Alien Registration Forms (Form AR-2), August 1940 to March 1944; Visa Files, July 1, 1924 to March 31, 1944; Registry Files, March 1929 to March 31, 1944; and A-Files, April 1, 1944 to May 1, 1951. See this USCIS page for an overview.

Right now, anybody who needs copies of these records from USCIS can make a request for a records search — a report back from USCIS as to what records it has for an individual and what the document and file numbers are (and we need those numbers to request those particular records). The fee for that document request is currently $20.

Once we have those document and file numbers, we can make a request for a copy of those genealogy records — a C file or an A file, for example — and get it from microfilm with a fee of $20. Or if the records only exist in text form rather than on microfilm, we can get a copy for a fee of $35.

All of those fees, under the proposal filed for public comment by USCIS on May 4th, would go up to $65: $65 for the initial search request; $65 for the copy from microfilm; and $65 for the copy from textual records.

Now that’s a pretty hefty increase — some 225% for the records search and microfilm copy, 86% for the textual copy. And it’s sure to infuriate those who believe that (a) all genealogical records should be free and/or (b) the genealogical records they need should be free, even if everyone else has to pay for them.

But fees at USCIS have remained the same since November 2010 — no fee increases at all. And there isn’t any serious funding provided by Congress for the genealogy program at USCIS. So either the users pay for the service by fees or — and this alternative is unthinkable — the genealogy program at USCIS goes away and we end up waiting until the records are archived at the National Archives (meaning we won’t have access in our lifetimes…).

Now of course this really is just a proposed rule at this point. You can certainly send a comment in to USCIS on the proposed rule and try to convince them it shouldn’t happen. The rule announcement is on the Federal Register website here. We all have another 55 days to tell USCIS what we think of this proposal.

But — seriously — the chances of this not going through even if every last one of us rose up in unison are essentially nil. This fee increase will take place. The rule proposal makes it clear that USCIS thinks the real cost of providing these records is considerably higher, if all administrative costs had been factored in, and that we’re getting a break by holding the increase to the $65 level.

So feel free to comment if you choose… but cover your bets right now. In short, if you’ve been holding back and waiting to make a document search request or waiting to order USCIS records, now is the time to get your request in.

To make a search request to produce any and all records citations for your person — and you can’t order a record without the record citation number — head over to the USCIS genealogy program web request page right now and pay the current $20 fee to get the request in. And note that the page says the request page will be down today (May 11th) between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. EDT.

If you’re really really lucky — and there are no guarantees here because some search requests have been taking a very long time — you’ll get the records citation report back before the new fees go into effect and you’ll be able to then go ahead and order the records themselves from microfilm or textual record before the new fees take effect. Don’t count on this — I’ve had one search request pending since October 26, 2015, with no response.

But at least act now to make your search request. No matter what happens with the fee proposal, it can’t take effect before the comment period expires on July 5th, and that means you have that long for sure to get a search request for $20 rather than $65.

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