Opposing the fee hike

Nobody with a functioning brain expects genealogy to be free.

Yeah, yeah, The Legal Genealogist knows there are those who think it should be free — that having to buy copies of birth, marriage and death certificates and court documents and government records is somehow “unfair” and some nameless faceless someone else should be paying for their hobby.

The rest of us are only too aware of the costs involved for a public office in supplying copies of records: the staff expenses in locating the record, the supplies and costs in sending it. And we’re willing to pay our fair share for the records we need.

But supplying essential records shouldn’t be a profit center, and it sure seems that a fee proposal by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for records essential to our research as family historians is trying to do just that: raise revenue, not serve records.

And so I am joining the campaign to oppose the proposed nearly 500% hike in fees for USCIS genealogical records, now online at Records, Not Revenue.

Here’s the story.

USCIS records include things like Naturalization Certificate Files (C-files) from September 27, 1906 to April 1, 1956; Alien Registration Forms (AR-2) from August 1, 1940 to March 31, 1944; Visa files from July 1, 1924 to March 31, 1944; Registry Files from March 2, 1929 to March 31, 1944; and Alien Files (A-files) numbered below 8 million (A8000000) and documents therein dated prior to May 1, 1951.1

From 2008-2016, we could ask USCIS to search its records and tell us what it held with respect to our ancestors for a search fee of $20. If it found records, and we wanted a copy, it’d cost us $20 for a record from microfilm and $35 if the record was on paper.2

So, for example, if I wanted the four-page 1938 visa file for my grandfather’s sister, who returned to the United States from Germany, it would have cost $55: $20 for the record search and $35 for the record from paper. (It would have been at most $40 for, say, an alien registration file, the AR-2: $20 for the search, $20 for the record from microfilm.)

In 2016, USCIS raised those fees. An index search went to $65 and the record copies were the same — $65 from microfilm or on paper.3

So that 1938 visa file as of 2016 cost $130: $65 for the record search and $65 for the record itself.

Now USCIS proposes to vastly increase all records-related fees. To get a file under this proposal will cost — are you ready for this? — no less than $240 and more likely as much as $625.

The record search fee would be $240, and if the record had already been digitized, it would be provided without an additional fee. If the record was on paper however (and visa files are paper records), there would be an additional paper-record fee of $385, for a total of $625. (By the way, there’s no guarantee that a paper record digitized for person A would be considered as digitized for person B.)

USCIS fees

That’s flatly outrageous.

First off, huge numbers of these records should be transferred — or at least a copy sent — to the National Archives and so should be available for research there at a much lower cost. They’re not, and there’s no indication as to why they’re not or when the restrictions will be lifted.

Second, there’s no explanation for the fee amount even for records entirely in the custody of USCIS: how is it justifying this enormous increase? It says — without specificity — that it’s “based on the average time to complete a request.”

In short, this smacks of revenue-raising, not record-serving. And that’s just plain wrong.

So… what can we do as genealogists?

Speak out.

We need to be heard, loud and clear on this issue. The entire community — whether our individual research requires access to USCIS records or not — needs to say this is frankly wrong. And we only have until December 16, 2019 to be heard.

Here’s the game plan:

First: read the proposed rule that changes the fees (it’s online at the Federal Register here, and the section on the fees in the Genealogy Program begins on page 587 here).

Second: Put together your thoughts about why this proposed fee hike is a bad idea. You can look at the Records, Not Revenue website for more information about this and ideas about what to include. You can also read the comments that have already been posted about this proposal at the online portal of the Federal Register here. Write it out and have it ready to upload (the comment system is online). Be sure to specifically mention that you’re commenting on the fees for the Genealogy Program.

Third: Post your comment to the online Federal Register comment system here. The reference number is DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010 — make sure to follow all the instructions, and then check on the Federal Register portal comment page to be sure yours posted.

Fourth: Send a copy of your comments to the two United States Senators from your state and to the member of the House of Representatives for your district. You can get names and contact information for your Senators at Senate.gov and for your House member at House.gov.

Fifth and last: Recruit your fellow genealogists-librarians-historians-researchers-news media friends to join in. This impacts all researchers — and we need to stand together on this.

After you’ve commented, if you’d like to stay informed on this issue, you can sign up for updates at Records, Not Revenue.

As genealogists we do need to pay our fair share. When researchers require records, we can’t expect them to be free or for the costs to be paid by taxpayers not interested in our research.

But there’s a big difference between paying our fair share and creating a revenue stream.

We’re entitled to records… we shouldn’t be asked to fund a profit center.

We need to speak out.

Now.

The deadline for comments is December 16, 2019.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Records, not revenue,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 21 Nov 2019).

SOURCES

  1. See “Historical Records Series Available From the Genealogy Program,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (https://www.uscis.gov/genealogy : accessed 20 Nov 2019).
  2. See ibid., USCIS Genealogy Program.
  3. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Heads up: fee hike coming,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 May 2016 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 21 Nov 2019).
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