How to File a FOIA Request
How to Make a FOIA Request in an Asylum Case
Asylum offers individuals protection from persecution in their home countries. To apply for asylum once you enter the United States, you need to file an application with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).During the application process, it may become necessary, or wise, to see what information the government has about you (e.g., background information, past immigration files, extended history).To access this information, you need to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the proper federal agency.
Searching for Records Already Available
Explore the FOIA search engine.Some records are already available to the public, which means you will not have to make a FOIA request to access them. USCIS will automatically release documents that have been requested three or more times. FOIA also requires federal agencies to release documents that the public might have an interest in seeing.
- Therefore, before you make a FOIA request, check with various websites for the documents you need. The first place to look is FOIA's search engine. After accessing this webpage, the search engine allows you to search every agency website at once. Simply type what you are looking for into the text box and browse through the results.
Visit the USCIS Electronic Reading Room.If you do not find what you are looking for through the FOIA search engine, try narrowing your search. The first place to look will be the USCIS Electronic Reading Room. This webpage gives you access to documents USCIS has made public through FOIA responses. To search, browse through the available topics until you find what you are looking for.
- For example, in asylum cases, click on the topic titled "Refugee, Asylee and International Operations Information". This will open up another set of topics. Choose one of them, for example "Aslyees and Refugees", and see what comes up.
Access other agency websites that may have pertinent information.While most of the asylum information will be available from USCIS, which is the main agency processing asylum cases, there may be other agencies with information you are looking for. If you do not find what you are looking for from USCIS, try searching the State Department (DOS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) websites.
- All of these federal agencies should have reading rooms or search engines you can use to find FOIA related documents.
Determining Where to Direct Your Request
Determine what FOIA covers.If you do not find what you are looking for by searching government databases, you will have to make a FOIA request. However, FOIA requests are limited. You can only make FOIA requests for records from federal regulatory agencies and other federal executive offices. FOIA does not apply to the President, Congress, or the judiciary. In addition, state and local governments are not covered by FOIA.
- While federal regulatory agencies (e.g., USCIS) are required to respond to your request, they may be exempt from providing the documents you seek. For example, USCIS would not have to provide documents that could disclose national security information or documents that would clearly violate someone's privacy.
Decide which agency to contact.USCIS will be your main source of information because they handle the asylum application and approval process. However, some records you might find important are kept with other agencies. For example, CBP will have certain background investigations and ICE will have certain medical records if you were ever detained.
- make sure you contact the correct agency so your FOIA request can be properly processed. If you send a FOIA request to an agency that does not have the information you seek, that agency will simply close your case.
Find the agency's FOIA contact information.Each agency has specific contact information where FOIA requests need to be sent. This information can be found on each agency's website. To find it, conduct an internet search for the agency's name plus the words "FOIA request". For example, if you want to make a FOIA request to USCIS, search for "USCIS FOIA request". Navigate to the agency's website and find the contact information.
Drafting Your Request for Records
Use USCIS's request form.USCIS offers Form G-639, Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act Request, which you can fill out in order to make a FOIA request. Download the form from USCIS's forms website.Once you download the form, work your way through it and fill in as much information as possible. The more information you provide, the easier it will be for USCIS to process your request successfully. Form G-639 asks for the following information:
- The type of request you are making
- Your contact information
- A description of the records you are looking for
- A verification of identity
- Consent, if necessary
Address your request properly.Every FOIA request, in order to be valid, must be submitted in writing. If you do not want to use Form G-639, you can draft your own request. At the top of the FOIA request, and on the envelope, be sure to include the agency's contact information. This will ensure your request gets where it needs to go.
- For example, if you are drafting a FOIA request that will be mailed to USCIS, you need to send your request to: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, National Records Center, FOIA/PA Office, P.O. Box 648010, Lee's Summit, MO 64064-8010.
Identify the type of request you are making.USCIS identifies requests as either first party requests or third party requests. First party requests are requests for records that you are the subject of. First party requests are generally made by you, your representative, or your attorney. You must explicitly provide consent and verify your identity in order for USCIS to release these records.
- On the other hand, third party requests are requests in which consent and identity verification of the subject cannot be obtained. If you are a third party requester, you will only get publicly available documents and other limited information.
- In the first full paragraph of your FOIA request, identify whether you are making a first party or third party request.
Describe the records you seek.In the next paragraph of your FOIA request, include enough information about the records you want so USCIS can conduct a focused and efficient search. The most common request you might make with USCIS is for your A-File (a.k.a., aline file). An A-File contains every immigration and naturalization record for a particular individual.
- Do not make your request in the form of a question, as FOIA does not require agencies to answer them. If your request leads to multiple records, or no records at all, USCIS may require you to provide additional information.
Inform USCIS of the reason for your request.The reason, or purpose, for your request will provide USCIS with important information that will help them process the request. For example, if you are requesting documents to help with your asylum case, and you tell USCIS this, USCIS might be able to expedite your request so you can get the records in a timely manner.
Verify your identity.If you are asking for information about yourself (e.g., a first party request for your A-File), you need to provide your full name, current address, date of birth, place of birth, and your alien registration number (if you have one). Following this information you need to draft a sworn statement declaring the truthfulness of the information you provided. You must sign the statement as well.
- For example, if you need to verify your identity for a FOIA request, place the following information on a separate page you will attach to your request: "Name, address, date of birth, place of birth, and alien registration number. I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on [date]. [Your signature]."
Obtain consent, if necessary.If you are making a first party request on someone's behalf, you must obtain that party's consent. To obtain consent, ask the subject to draft the following statement, which you will include as an attachment to your FOIA request:
- "Pursuant to the Privacy Act of 1974 and DHS policy, I hereby consent to the disclosure to [your name] of any record pertaining to me that appears in any system of records of USCIS, USCBP, or USICE."
Provide accurate contact information.You will need to include your contact information so USCIS can send you updates, requests for additional information, determination letters, and records. If you fail to provide accurate information, you may not get the records you need. Therefore, make sure your request includes the following information:
- Your full name
- Your mailing address
- Your telephone number
- Your email address
Filing Your FOIA Request
Choose a method to submit your request.After you have completed Form G-639 or drafted your own FOIA request, it needs to be submitted to USCIS in writing. You will not be allowed to call in a request or make one online. USCIS allows you to mail in your request, fax it, or email it.
- If you are mailing in your request, you can do so by sending it to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, National Records Center, FOIA/PA Office, P.O. Box 648010, Lee's Summit, MO 64064-8010.
- If you want to send your request overnight or through certified mail, it needs to be sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, National Records Center, FOIA/PA Office, 150 Space Center Loop, Suite 300, Lee's Summit, MO 64064-2139.
- You can fax your request to 816-350-5785.
- You can email your request to .
Receive an acknowledgement letter.Once USCIS receives your request it will be processed through an automated system (FIPS). USCIS is required to respond to you within 20 working days of your request being processed by FIPS. The first response you will likely receive is an acknowledgement letter, which will tell you that USCIS has received your request and that they are working on fulfilling it.
- If USCIS accepts your request, your acknowledgment letter will say this and it will further state that your records will be sent in a reasonable amount of time.
Respond to any request for additional information.Often, USCIS will not be able to process your request with the information you provided. They may need more information to help them narrow their search and find relevant records.If this is the case, USCIS will send you a request for additional information. If you are able to give USCIS the information they need, do so. If you do not have the information they are asking for, tell them.
- Work with USCIS so they can get you the records you need for your asylum case.
Pay required fees.While there are no official fees for filing a FOIA request, there may be processing fees for retrieving, copying, and sending you records. USCIS will notify you if there will be any fees associated with your request and if so, how much. Fee waivers are available in limited circumstances. However, if you are trying to access documents for your own personal use (e.g., an A-File), fee waivers will not be available.
Checking the Status of Your Request
Understand processing times.USCIS uses a three-track system to process A-File FOIA requests and a two-track system for all other requests. The track USCIS places you in will dictate how long it will take for your request to be processed. For example, if you requested an A-File, you will be placed in track one if it is a simple request, track two if it is a complex inquiry, and track three if you are scheduled for a hearing in front of an immigration judge. Track one has a processing time of 40 days, track two has a processing time of 99 days, and track three has a processing time of 33 days.
- If you requested materials that are not A-Files, you will be placed in track one if you have a simple request and track two if your request requires extra work. Track one has a processing time of 57 days and track two has a processing time of 130 days.
Visit the USCIS status checker.Once your request is in the USCIS system, you can check on the status of that request online. To do this, go to the USCIS status checker website and enter the control number you were provided. The status checker will tell you what track your request is in as well as the position of your request relative to all other requests in your track.
Call the National Customer Service Unit (NCSU).If you have questions that cannot be answered using the status checker, call 1-800-375-5283. If you are hearing impaired you can call (800) 767-1833.
Fax inquiries to USCIS.If you do not have access to a phone, fax your questions or concerns to (816) 350-5785.
Appealing a Denial
Read an adverse determination.If USCIS does not have the records you are looking for, or if USCIS is exempt from providing you with the documents, you will receive an adverse determination letter detailing those reasons. Read this letter carefully as it will tell you exactly how to appeal the decision. The letter will also give you clues into how you can respond.
Draft your appeal.Your appeal letter needs to identify the adverse determination letter you are responding to. You can usually do this by including the request number that was assigned to you. Your appeal letter must clearly state why you disagree with the agency's decision and how the request can be properly processed.
- For example, if USCIS denied your request based on a national security exemption, you might respond by saying all sensitive information should be redacted and then forwarded to you.
- If USCIS denied your request based on a likely invasion of privacy, you can respond by providing USCIS with an identify verification and/or consent.
Address your letter.Your appeal letter should be titled "Freedom of Information Act Appeal" and it should be addressed to USCIS FOIA/PA Appeals Office, 150 Space Center Loop, Suite 500, Lee's Summit, MO 64064-2139.
Submit your appeal.Your appeal must be submitted within 60 days of you receiving your adverse determination letter.If you fail to submit your appeals letter on time, you might forfeit your ability to appeal altogether.
Receive a response.Once USCIS processes your appeal, they will issue a response. If USCIS denies your appeal, the records will not be sent to you and your case will be closed. The denial letter will detail why your appeal was denied. However, if the adverse determination is reversed or modified, you will be notified in writing of this decision. Your request will then be reprocessed in accordance with the appeals decision.
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