Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests for Visa and Immigration Cases

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A FOIA request can be extremely helpful to find out what information a government agency has; to clarify dates; and to “re-construct” a file in a case where documents were lost or misplaced. Such a request can be critical to overcome a finding of inadmissibility in visa cases, in particular, such as accusations of misrepresentations, alien smuggling and unlawful presence.  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 exemptions (e.g., law enforcement, security, and privacy reasons).  As a general rule, the Government does not charge fees for conducting the search, although it reserves the right to do so.

What makes the FOIA process challenging is that 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, Customs and Border Protection, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This can be particularly challenging for older FOIA cases, especially those pre-dating 2001. Just as importantly, it is critical to properly craft the FOIA request to ensure the maximum efficacy of the response from the government agency.

Disclosure of records from the Department of State, embassies, and consulates is limited to copies of documents submitted by visa applicants, including visa applications such as the DS-160 and DS-260. In contrast, disclosure from the other agencies is extremely broad; those agencies are required to disclose all records held on an individual unless they fall within an exemption.  In legal terms, there is a “presumption of disclosure.” A USCIS FOIA request can be used to obtain copies of petitions and applications submitted, as well as internal USCIS memoranda on the admissibility of the individual, for example, a USCIS site visit to an employer or a fraud investigation into the authenticity of a diploma. A CBP FOIA request can be used to obtain airport and port-of-entry records, including Sworn Statements, expedited removal orders, and internal notes of CBP inspectors. FBI files include criminal records.  

Sometimes, the scope and breadth of the results can be astonishing – dozens or hundreds of pages of documents that can provide vital insight into the information the US government has on you and the conclusions it has reached on your situation. It is not unusual for that information to be flat out wrong, based on erroneous assumptions or mistaken application of the law. If the government agency’s response to the FOIA request is inadequate, it is possible to appeal the decision. For example, if the government agency conducts a cursory or incompetent search, this can lead to a “no records” response. In such a case one should file an appeal and/or a complaint. 

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 extend beyond 3, 6, or 12 months. For example, we filed a FOIA request for a client in February 2023 with CBP and did not receive a response. In November 2023, we filed a lawsuit against CBP and within two months, received results.  In short, filing a lawsuit can help expedite a response.

Of course, it is important to have legal support in the FOIA process. It is necessary to not only determine the proper agency and professionally formulate the request, but review the results and strategize to address and hopefully overcome the underlying legal problem. If you would like assistance with your FOIA request, please feel free to contact us.