A call to action for genealogists
Like most requests from the federal government, it seems to be written in geek-speak: the language of bureaucracy.
Telling ordinary citizens to “identify, with specificity, the regulation or … process at issue, providing the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) and/or … Policy Manual citation where available or applicable” may not be the best way to get folks to speak up.
But speak up we must — we, the genealogical community — now that we’ve been invited to do so by an agency with custody of vast record sets of immense importance to us.
Yep, we’re being asked to advise the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) about ways it could change the way it does things “with the goal of reducing burdens on the public, saving costs for both the public and USCIS, increasing navigability, saving time, reducing confusion and frustration, promoting simplification, improving efficiency, and/or removing barriers that unnecessarily impede access to immigration benefits.”1 In our case, the benefit of information access.
USCIS is the agency that holds, and thus controls access to, an enormous range of records of genealogical and historical significance to researchers. Things like Naturalization Certificate Files (C-Files), 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. There’s a ton of information about each of these record types on the USCIS Genealogy Program website.2
The problem is… it’s not easy to get access to these records. It’s expensive, it takes a long time, and even though many of these records could be transferred to the National Archives where access would be much faster and less expensive, that transfer just hasn’t happened. These are all issues we can address with USCIS by way of this new call for comments.
As always, if we’re going to make a difference, we need to follow a careful three step-process:
1. Educate ourselves on the issues themselves and on the specific questions being asked by the agency.
2. Write a careful and thoughtful comment or set of comments, addressing specific concerns and, where possible, noting relevant agency rules.
3. Send our comments via the comment portal for federal rules.
Let’s review these one by one.
Educating ourselves can start on the website of Records, Not Revenue, a “non-partisan project coordinated by an ad hoc group of genealogists, historians, and records access advocates”3 established in response to the outrageous fee hikes USCIS tried to impose last year.4 We can — at a minimum — read through its guide to issues with the Genealogy Program and its suggestions for comment starters, and think about how these issues impact our research. We also need to spend some time reviewing the call for comments from USCIS to be able to best tailor what we say in response.
Writing a careful and thoughtful comment means thinking through specific problems we’ve encountered with access to the records held by USCIS and specific ways that the Genealogy Program could improve. A proposal to regularly and routinely transfer records to the National Archives is a whole lot more likely to get a good response than a “you suck in responding to requests” comment. Linking comments to specific agency rules will help, and the Records, Not Revenue guide suggests what rules we might address, and the agency’s call for comments suggests what our focus can be: improving the agency systems to provide better access to our records.
Sending our comments in means using the specific Regulations.gov comment portal set up for this call for comments. No emails. No phone calls. No letters. We have to use this specific system. This isn’t all that hard, and it’s the same kind of system we all used to comment about the proposed fee hikes. And it means doing so by May 19, the deadline for comments.
Now… understand that we’re at most the tail on the USCIS dog: those of us who are looking for access to information held by the agency rather than those actively involved in the process of regulating immigration and naturalization today are the very smallest part of the agency’s stakeholders. Those modern issues occupy much more of the agency’s attention — and those issues can be contentious. Ours shouldn’t be: these are our records and we want them.
We need to make our voices heard.
And the deadline is May 19.
Get educated. Write a thoughtful comment. Send it in.
By May 19th.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Call for comments,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 3 May 2021).
- Notice, “Identifying Barriers Across U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Benefits and Services; Request for Public Input,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 86 FR 20398 (updated 26 April 2021). ↩
- See “Historical Records Series Available From the Genealogy Program,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, USCIS.gov (https://www.uscis.gov/ : accessed 3 May 2021). ↩
- Records, Not Revenue (https://www.recordsnotrevenue.com/ : accessed 3 May 2021). ↩
- See generally Judy G. Russell, “Records, not revenue,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Nov 2019, “USCIS fees: ouch ouch ouch,” posted 3 Aug 2020, “Reprieve!,” posted 30 Sep 2020, and “Cautious good news,” posted 8 Feb 2021 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 3 May 2021). ↩