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USCIS fee hike on hold

A legal challenge to the enormous increases scheduled to go into effect this week in fees charged by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has led a federal judge in California to put the rule including the rules on hold.

And boy does The Legal Genealogist think that’s good news.

Because those fees are killers for getting copies of records critical for genealogy… not to mention killers for a lot of other things like legal immigration.

Increases in fees for genealogically-valuable records, and for most functions of USCIS, were due to go into effect on Friday, October 2.

But for the moment they’re on hold thanks to a court case filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California by groups that provide legal and other assistance to immigrants and refugees, and an order entered yesterday by the judge, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, stopping the rule from taking effect.1

USCIS rule

The case, Immigrant Legal Resource Center et al. v. Wolf, et al., Case No. 20-cv-05883-JSW (N.D. Cal.), was filed in August, and raises a wide variety of legal issues with respect to the USCIS rule focusing on its legality under federal law.2 The rationale of the suit doesn’t focus at all on the genealogical records themselves — we’re just along for the ride.3

But what a ride it has been…

You may recall that last November the USCIS proposed a hike in its fees for all purposes, including horrendous increases in charges for genealogically-valuable records.

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, 1951.4

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.5

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.6 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).”7

The rule — published on August 3rd — was better, but still appalling. If the rule goes into effect:

• For a record index search request made via online filing, the current fee of $65 will go to $160, a 95 146 percent increase. This is mitigated by the fact that it will include a copy of any record located that is stored in digital format. (Note: Thanks to reader Cory for correcting the error — it’s a $95 hike which is 146 percent.)

• 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.8

And — sigh — the only time any of these fees would be 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.9 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 wouldn’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.

There’s no telling how long the court order stopping the rule from taking effect will stay in place. The USCIS can — and undoubtedly will — appeal. How the legal issues in the case will come out is anybody’s guess.

What this means for the long run … we have no idea.

But for the short run — if you have any requests you’ve held back with USCIS, you might want to think about getting them filed now.

Because … for the moment… we have a reprieve.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Reprieve!,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 30 Sep 2020).

SOURCES

  1. See Nathan Solis, “Judge Blocks Huge Immigration and Citizenship Fee Hike,” Courthouse News Service, posted 29 Sep 2020 (https://www.courthousenews.com/ : accessed 29 Sep 2020).
  2. See generally Immigrant Legal Resource Center et al v. Wolf et al., Justia Dockets & Filings (https://dockets.justia.com/ : accessed 29 Sep 2020).
  3. For more on this case, see “AILA and Partners Sue USCIS Over Fee Rule,” posted 20 Aug 2020, AILA.org (https://www.aila.org/ : accessed 29 Sep 2020). And to stay abreast of this case and others like it, every genealogist should be signed up for news alerts from the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee. Check it out!!
  4. See “Historical Records Series Available From the Genealogy Program,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (https://www.uscis.gov/genealogy : accessed 29 Sep 2020).
  5. See ibid., USCIS Genealogy Program.
  6. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Heads up: fee hike coming,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 May 2016 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 29 Sep 2020)
  7. 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).
  8. 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).
  9. Ibid., 85 FR 46919.
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