This sponsored column is by James Montana, Esq. and Doran Shemin, Esq., practicing attorneys at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Arlington, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact James for an appointment.

The best things in life are free. The best things in law are expensive, with one exception: Freedom of Information Act requests, which are free, free, free.

The Freedom of Information Act is, as readers surely know, a useful tool for journalists and ordinary citizens to obtain information about what our government does. But it is extremely useful and vastly underused in the immigration context. Submitting FOIA requests for immigration records is a simple process that helps immigrants and practitioners alike by giving us a look at someone’s entire immigration history.

FOIA requests are filed with USCIS’s National Records Center online or by mail on a simple form called the G-639. The form can be used to request specific documents, such as an old application or certificate of naturalization, or an individual’s entire immigration file. There is no charge unless the government sends a bill; in our experience, the government never, ever does.

The results of FOIA requests have given us some of our most exciting cases. We’ve found:

  • A client who thought they were waiting for an asylum decision had been granted asylum years ago. The approval notice had been lost in the mail.
  • A client who thought he was simply a green card holder had actually been a U.S. citizen for many years.
  • A client who did not know about youthful interactions with immigration officials discovered, with our help, that he had an old deportation order. (There are many ways to find out that unpleasant fact, but believe us: filing an FOIA request is the least painful by far.)

Any time you have questions about what happened in an immigration case or if you’ve lost your documents, file an FOIA!

Where’s that file? I know it’s around here somewhere…

FOIAs are also helpful for American citizens researching family history. You can submit a G-639 seeking the records of a deceased family member using an obituary or death certificate. For example, Doran wanted to learn more about her grandmother Lillian’s immigration history and submitted an FOIA request to USCIS with a copy of her grandmother’s obituary.

In the FOIA results, Doran received a copy of Lillian’s Argentine birth certificate, a copy of Lillian’s visa application and Lillian’s application for U.S. citizenship. Doran also learned that her grandmother did not legally change her name from Luisa to Lillian until Lillian became a U.S. citizen in 1956. All of this information was sitting in a government office waiting to be discovered and would have otherwise been unknown.

Analyzing FOIA results are some of our favorite things to do at our office. We’re happy to help our clients request their file and make recommendations about how to move their cases forward. We do an FOIA request at no extra charge whenever we think it is necessary as part of a consultation — information wants to be free, and we want to help you liberate it.

We’ve participated in the immigration FOIA review process at an even nerdier level — helping sue USCIS to try to compel the production of allegedly exempt material — but that’s a story for another day. For now, our message is: File an FOIA request! You’ll learn a lot, and your future lawyer will be deeply grateful.

As always, we welcome any thoughts or comments and will do our best to respond.

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