Obtaining Government Files — Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information. In practice, this means a government agency will provide a copy of every document it has reflecting its dealings with that person: 1) all documents submitted by the person; 2) all requests and decisions made by the agency; and 3) all agency records reflecting contact with the person (e.g., crossing the border into the U.S., fingerprinting) and its investigation(s) of the person.

A FOIA request is helpful to find out what information a government agency has; to clarify dates; and to “re-construct” a file in case documents were lost or misplaced. All agencies of the Executive Branch of the United States Government are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request for them, except for those records protected from disclosure by any of nine exemptions and three exclusions of the FOIA (see below). There is no central office which processes FOIA requests for all federal agencies; therefore, it is necessary to determine which agency is likely to have your desired records and submit a FOIA request to that agency, such as the Department of State, FBI, USCIS, and Customs and Border Patrol.

In the immigration context, the Freedom of Information Act applies to non-citizens and non-permanent residents and the Privacy Act applies to permanent residents and US citizens. The disclosure and procedural rules are similar. For ease of reference, we discuss the FOIA process below.

How to Make a FOIA Request

While there are no special forms required for FOIA requests, all requests must be made in writing. “Freedom of Information Act Request” should be written on the envelope or on the subject line of the fax and a daytime telephone number where you may be reached should be included. The request should also include the fee category that the request is believed to belong to and a statement declaring a willingness to pay the applicable fees. The request should be as specific as possible. The following information will facilitate the search:

  • Type of record;
  • Timeframe of record;
  • Specific subject matter, country, person and/or organization;
  • Offices or consulates originating or receiving the record;
  • Particular event, policy, or circumstance that led to the creation of the record;
  • Reason why the record is believed to exist.

To protect personal privacy, the personal records of an individual may only be released with the authorization of that individual. To process a request for your own personal records, the request must contain your original signature, and your signature must either be notarized or submitted under penalty of perjury, be signed, and dated. In addition to the information listed above, a personal record request should contain your full name, any aliases used, and date and place of birth.

Response Time

According to the statute, all federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within twenty business days. However, a tremendous backlog exists in most agencies and actual response times can require several months.

Expedited Processing

A FOIA request may be given expedited treatment if the requester can demonstrate that a “compelling need” for the information exists. A compelling need is deemed to exist when not granting expedited treatment would pose a threat to someone’s life or physical safety, or impair substantial due process rights. The granting of expedited treatment is uncommon and, in general, a case will not be expedited simply because the requester is facing a court deadline in a judicial proceeding.

Information Available Without a FOIA Request

Under FOIA, federal agencies must make four distinct categories of records electronically available for “public inspection and copying”. These “electronic reading room” records consist of:

  1. Final opinions rendered in the adjudication of administrative cases;
  2. Specific agency policy statements;
  3. Certain administrative staff manuals;
  4. Frequently requested documents released under the FOIA.

By contacting a US Embassy directly, a visa applicant should be able to obtain legal and factual reasons for a visa denial and copies of visa applications or statutory documents submitted by the applicant. USCIS may also be contacted directly to obtain a copy of a decision. This method is often much faster than making formal FOIA requests.

Exempt Information

Government agencies are authorized to withhold information pertaining to the following nine exemption categories:

  1. Classified information for national defense or foreign policy;
  2. Internal personnel rules and practices;
  3. Information that is exempt under other laws;
  4. Trade secrets and confidential business information;
  5. Inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters that are protected by legal privilege;
  6. Personnel and medical files;
  7. Law enforcement records or information;
  8. Information concerning bank supervision;
  9. Geological and geophysical information.

In addition, there are three exclusions, which are rarely used, pertaining to particularly sensitive law enforcement and national security matters.

Department of State (DOS) FOIA Requests

The Department of State maintains records dealing with:

  1. The formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy;
  2. The administration and operations of the Department of State and U.S. missions abroad;
  3. Applications from U.S. citizens for U.S. passports;
  4. Visa requests from non-citizens to enter the U.S.;
  5. Consular assistance given to U.S. citizens abroad;
  6. Current and former employees of the Department.

There is a wide-ranging exemption which excludes visa records from disclosure.

U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) FOIA Requests

A USCIS FOIA request can be used to obtain the entry and exit records of foreign citizens, naturalization records, visa files, and alien files.

U. S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) FOIA Requests

A CBP FOIA request can be used to obtain additional entry and exit records.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) FOIA Requests

FBI files generally contain reports of FBI investigations of a wide range of matters, including criminal records, counterterrorism, foreign counter-intelligence, organized crime/drugs, violent crime, white collar crime, job applicants, and civil rights.

How can White & Associates help?

If you require government records or would like to make a FOIA request, the experienced professionals at White & Associates can provide legal support. In some situations, it can be advantageous to be aware of what the U.S. government knows about you in order to better understand the grounds on which the government is basing its decisions. Often, the government makes mistakes in its decision making process because of erroneous information. In preparing appeals and certain applications, it is very important to refer to documents and to be exact. For example, in cases involving unlawful presence it is critical to be able to establish dates of entry and exit from the United States. In any matter regarding inadmissibility on criminal grounds, it is imperative to obtain the administrative, judicial, and legal records from the government agency. If you would like assistance determining which agencies have the information you need and help preparing a FOIA request, please feel free to contact us.