Comment period closes Monday!
If you’re a genealogist, and you haven’t spoken out yet, the time is now.
N. O. W.
As in “by the end of the day Monday, March 13.”
That’s the drop-dead deadline — extended from this past Monday — for comments to be submitted on the proposed fee hike for access to genealogically invaluable records held by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and available only through its Genealogy Program.
The proposed rule — published in the Federal Register1 — will increase fees for a search of USCIS records to see what they might have on an immigrant ancestor by 54% if made online, from $65 to $100, and by 85% if made on paper, from $65 to $120.
It would then increase the fee to make a records request online by 269%, from $65 to $240, and by 300% if made on paper, from $65 to $260.
That’s perfectly awful.
USCIS argues that this isn’t all that bad, because if the agency can serve up a digital copy of a record found as a result of an online search, it will do that for a flat $100 for the search-and-record, so a net savings of 23% from the $65 fee for the search and additional $65 fee for the record.
That sounds good, except for the fact that a very large group of really terrific records of genealogical value don’t exist in a digital form and so won’t be subject to this $100 search-and-record fee. In fact, the only USCIS records we can expect to get for this $100 search-and-record fee are the Alien Registration (AR-2) forms and those Certificate Files (C-files) below 6.5 million (in order words, those produced between 1906 and roughly 1945). All other USCIS genealogy records remain in hard copy, including C-files above 6.5 million (ca. 1945-1956), as well as the “lower” C-files that were unavailable at time of microfilming, OR were re-opened after microfilming (a paper file holds the later-generated paper); Visa Files; Registry Files; and A-Files below 8 million.
In short, this is a big hit. And a big hit that is totally unjustified.
First, USCIS flat out admits it has no idea how much it actually costs to serve up a genealogy records search or fill a records request and is basically guessing.2
Second, and far more importantly, vast numbers of the records held by USCIS ought to be transferred for archival purposes to the National Archives, where records access isn’t handled by bean-counters. Take, just as one example, the visa file of my grandfather’s sister. It was eligible for transfer to the National Archives years ago. It’s six pages long, with one of those pages being just a stamp and another two being the top and bottom of a single sheet of paper. Because it’s a paper record, not a microfilmed record, to get those six pages under this new fee rule, I would have to pay $100 for an online record search to get the information that I need to request the record, and then another $240 for the record. That’s $340 for just six pieces of paper that I should be able to get at the National Archives for free.
Or consider her alien registration form, the AR-2 — something that USCIS wants me to be happy to pay the $100 search-and-record fee for. It’s just two pages, on microfilm. That record already exists at the National Archives, but USCIS won’t allow the National Archives to let me see it there.
This is utterly unacceptable. This can’t be just allowed to go through without a fight. Every last one of us needs to speak out against making our national history inaccessible through ridiculous fees — and against an agency holding archival records hostage instead of turning them over without undue restrictions to the National Archives.
So… here’s how to be heard:
First: Put together your thoughts about why this proposed fee hike is a bad idea. There’s great information at the Records, Not Revenue website in its guide to issues with the Genealogy Program and its suggestions for comment starters. The comment system is online, so you can read the comments posted by others here to get ideas as well.
Second: Write out what you want to say in your own words. Anything that even hints at a form letter is going to be disregarded. Just one thousand carefully crafted individual comments will have much more impact than a hundred thousand “me too” form letters. Have that comment ready to post to the online system. Be sure to specifically mention that you’re commenting on the fees for the Genealogy Program. Otherwise the comment may be lost in the mass of comments opposing other proposed fee increases.
Third: Post your comment online. There’s a green box at the top of the Federal Register page for this rule that reads “Submit a Formal Comment.” Click on that and follow the prompts. You can also comment at the Regulations.gov website here using the blue Comment button. The reference number is DHS Docket No. USCIS 2021-0010 — make sure to follow all the instructions to be sure your comment posts.
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.
Records access is a precious gift that we have as genealogists and as citizens. Reasonable fees for reasonable public access to public records — fine.3 But unreasonable fees that put essential records out of reach for average Americans — and for records that should already be available at the National Archives? Not fine. Not at all.
Join me in speaking out.
The deadline for public comments on the rule is Monday, March 13, 2023, at 11:59 p.m. EST.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Deadline Monday for USCIS fee hike comments!,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 9 March 2023).
- See “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements,” 88 FR 402 (4 Jan 2023). ↩
- See ibid., See “§P. Genealogy and Records,” 88 FR 402 at 512 (“USCIS must estimate the costs of the genealogy program because it does not have a discrete genealogy program operating budget”). ↩
- No, nobody likes paying fees, but we get it — there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and taxpayers aren’t required to pay for our genealogy efforts. But we’re not required to pay with a blank check — and that’s what this is. ↩