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WHAT IS A “FOIA REQUEST” AND WHY IS IT AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE IMMIGRATION PROCESS

June 28, 2022
Ana Valenzuela

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any individual to submit a request to any federal government agency to obtain documents pertaining to themselves or others.  In representing an individual, an attorney may often recommend that you submit a “FOIA request” if you have had prior contact with immigration (at the border, through immigration court, etc.).  Individuals can also submit requests for copies of their criminal records if they have ever been arrested.

These records are important to obtain and review to best determine whether an applicant for immigration relief is eligible for the benefit they are seeking.  For example, an individual who was previously ordered removed or deported, and now seeks to apply for certain immigration benefits, may no longer be eligible for those benefits and risk having that prior removal order reinstated against them if they come to the attention of immigration officials.  For example, some individuals may have been deported at the border without even knowing it and are now applying for a new immigration benefit.  This prior deportation could result in their deportation now.  Consequently, a thorough review of an individual’s complete immigration history is critical in assessing the risks associated with applying for certain benefits or determining what relief the applicant may pursue.

Practitioners will commonly seek FOIA requests from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because DHS houses many other departments that interact exclusively with immigrants, such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); and U.S. Office of Biometrics Identity and Management (OBIM).  If an individual has ever been in removal proceedings, practitioners may also submit FOIA requests to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which is a part of the Department of Justice.  This is not an exhaustive list of agencies that can respond to your FOIA request.  Depending on the purpose of your FOIA (and what information you are specifically seeking), a practitioner may recommend submitting a FOIA request to one or multiple agencies.  Please note that each agency is a separate section within DHS, and each is responsible for processing their own FOIA requests.  It is very common for one agency to process their FOIA requests much more quickly than others.  Therefore, it is recommended that you wait for all requests to be processed before making a final assessment in your situation.

As each agency is responsible for processing their own FOIA requests, they also have their own procedure for submitting requests.  Nowadays, most requests can be submitted online.  The statute only requires that you “reasonably describe the records sought.”   It is recommended to be specific in your request so that the agency processing your request can easily locate your records.  The easiest way to locate someone’s prior immigration history record is by including the person’s “A number” in the request.  Most individuals who have had contact with any of these agencies will be assigned an “Alien Registration Number”, also known as an “A- number” or “A-file”.  This number will follow the individual throughout their immigration process, so all records pertaining to that individual’s case will be found in their “A-file”.

If you need assistance in submitting a FOIA request or identifying which agencies are likely to have your immigration records, please do not hesitate to contact our office at (312) 427-6163 or schedule a consultation online.

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