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Hikes announced on genealogy fees

Ouch ouch ouch.

The fee hikes proposed way last year on genealogically valuable records held by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) have been finalized and announced and…

Ouch ouch ouch.

Even though The Legal Genealogist figured this was coming, and even though the hikes are less than originally proposed, it’s still a major league ouch.

USCIS fee hikes

Effective 60 days from the publication of the new fee schedule in today’s edition of the Federal Register — so 60 days from today (and that will be October 2, 2020) — we’re going to have to pay a lot more for genealogy records from USCIS.

The smallest of the fee hikes — for a records search request made using the online request system — will be 95 percent. The biggest — for a copy of a paper record — is more than 300 percent.

Ouch ouch ouch.

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.

The USCIS proposal announced last November was ghastly: “The fee (for a record search) would increase from $65 to $240, an increase of $175 (269 percent increase). The fee for (a paper record) would increase from $65 to $385, an increase of $320 (492 percent).”4

The rule — published today — is better, but still appalling:

• For a record index search request made via online filing, the current fee of $65 will go to $160, a 95 percent increase. This is mitigated by the fact that it will include a copy of any record located that is stored in digital format.

• For a record index search request made by mail or other non-online means, the current fee of $65 will go to $170, a 162 percent increase. This will also be mitigated by the inclusion of a copy of any record located that is stored in digital format.

• For a Genealogy Records Request made via online filing, the current fee of $65 will go to $255, a 292 percent increase.

• For a Genealogy Records Request made by mail or other non-online means, the current fee of $65 will go to $265, a 308 percent increase.5

And — sigh — the only time any of these fees is refundable is if the agency tells us it has a record in response to an index search and tells us it’s held on paper and, when we ask for it, they can’t find it.6 But in all other cases, say if we make a records search request and it results in a report that no records were found, we don’t get our money back even if the reason why no records were found is that it was a lousy job by a distracted employee.

I’d love to say there was some wiggle room here, that USCIS demonstrated some real concern for genealogical research. Nope. The agency went through all of the major criticisms of its proposal and basically backhanded the arguments with a “hey we reduced the proposal, kwitcherbitchin.”7

And, of course, between the way the proposal is structured and the time it takes to get a response to an index search request — months even without a pandemic — the only part of this fee increase we can beat is getting a record copy request in now, and to do that we’d have to have already made and received the results of an index request (since we need that info to make a record copy request). We can’t beat this by filing an index request now. Yeah, we can file that for $65 now, but we won’t get a copy of any digitally-stored record that’s found for that price. We won’t get what we need to make the record request until well after October and then to ask for just the record would add another $255. So if we haven’t got the info we need to make a record request yet, we’re better off waiting until October.

Bottom line: prepare to pay more — much more — for genealogical records held by USCIS.

And prepare for the fight we’re all going to have to launch to get more records turned over faster to the National Archives.

Ouch ouch ouch.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “USCIS fees: ouch ouch ouch,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 3 Aug 2020).

SOURCES

  1. See “Historical Records Series Available From the Genealogy Program,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (https://www.uscis.gov/genealogy : accessed 3 Aug 2020).
  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 2 Aug 2020).
  4. Genealogy Requests, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements, 84 FR 62280 at 62343 (14 Nov 2019) (emphasis added).
  5. See Table 1—Non-Statutory IEFA Immigration Benefit Request Fees, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements, 85 FR 46788 at 46792 (3 Aug 2020) (emphasis added).
  6. Ibid., 85 FR 46919.
  7. See Ibid., 85 FR 46834-46838.
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