What Is the Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) and How Is It Useful?
The Freedom of Information Act, or Form G-639 FOIA Request, is an American law that allows an individual to request full or partial disclosure of documents and information from a United States government agency. In an immigration context, a FOIA request allows a requestor to obtain any and all immigration records from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) pertaining to him or her. The FOIA request can be made by the requestor him/herself or by another individual with the requestor’s consent.
A FOIA request can be an excellent way to find out what information USCIS has about a person. It is also the preferred method used by immigration attorneys to gather all the available information on their client’s immigration case, in order to provide the best possible advice. FOIA requests are also used for genealogy research, since the documents unearthed usually reveal a wealth of information about family members who immigrated to the United States many years ago.
Filing a FOIA Request – Form G-639
Form G-639 is used to file FOIA requests to USCIS. The individual whose information is being requested is the “subject of record.” Anyone can file a FOIA request on themselves, while third parties (such as immigration attorneys) filing the request require written consent from the subject of record. Parents can file on behalf of their children, provided they offer proof of relationship.
Filling out the Form G-639 is fairly straightforward and can even be done online. The three main things asked by the form are: (1) a precise description of the records being requested, (2) which government agency holds this information, and (3) the specific reason for requesting this information. Some of the agencies that can be asked to release documents are: USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and even Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR). Note that FOIA requests made to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) do not require submission of a Form G-639.
The Do’s and Don’ts of filing a Form G-639 FOIA Request
Just because you filed Form G-639 does not mean the government agency will automatically release all documents and information requested. There are limits to FOIA requests pertaining to immigration cases. Here are some examples of legitimate reasons for filing a G-639 as well as a number of invalid reasons.
Valid uses for Form G-639 FOIA Request are:
- An applicant requesting his or her own immigration records
- An applicant requesting immigration records of another person with their written consent
- Requesting immigration records with the intention of correcting or amending them
Invalid uses of Form G-639 are:
- Getting information pertaining to the status of a submitted application. Queries regarding the status of filed applications should be sent to the USCIS National Customer Service Center hotline.
- Obtaining consular notification of a visa petition approval. Form I-824, Application for Action on an Approved Application or Petition, should be used instead.
- Using the FOIA request as a means of getting the applicant’s original documents back from USCIS. Form G-884, Request for Return of Original Documents should be used instead.
- Seeking naturalization records before September 27, 1906 from USCIS. Individuals looking for such records should instead write to the clerk of the court where the naturalization occurred.
- Looking for USCIS manifest records for arrivals before December 1982. For these records individuals should contact the National Archives.
- Getting proof of status documents for the purposes of Social Security benefit, Selective Service requirement, etc.
How Long Does a Form G-639 FOIA Request Take?
By law any FOIA requests sent to USCIS have to be acknowledged by the agency within 20 business days of the date received. The applicant will receive a letter confirming the request, a control number, and an estimate on time frame. The control number can be used to track the progress of the request. In most cases, the actual delivery of the requested information/documents usually take anywhere from four to eight weeks to complete. Complex requests can (where the entire immigration file of an individual is asked for, for example) may take up to six months to process. Priority processing can be requested for urgent cases, such as where the information obtained is vital for an upcoming immigration hearing, or in cases where an individual’s physical safety or life is on the line.
For help and advice on filing a successful the Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) with Form G-639, please contact a licensed immigration attorney.