Right to Know. How to Request Information From the Government

Written by Carmen Cornejo

Knowing all the information the government has on you is priceless. In contrast, not knowing can get you in real trouble. Recently, a DACA recipient mother of three U.S. citizens who traveled abroad with an Advance Parole document (a travel permit) was not aware there was an open deportation order against her. When she tried to return to the U.S., she was denied re-entry and then deported. (Update: The mother has been allowed to come back to the U.S. and is currently fighting her case in the court.)

There are numerous reasons immigrants may want to access their files from the government. Some undocumented immigrants who received a deferment of deportation called DACA may not know whether there was a pending order of deportation against them before this life-changing process was implemented. Others may have had an immigration process filed for them in the past by a family member. Some DACA recipients ready to renew may have lost their original application and want to use it as a reference for the renewal. Others may want to make sure they do not have a criminal record before applying for DACA.

The good news is that immigrants can access files the government has on them through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

FOIA is a federal law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of information and documents controlled by the United States government. The Act defines what agency records are subject to disclosure and to whom, outlines disclosure procedures, and allows individuals to access the information that may be on file, such as immigration records, criminal actions, etc. FOIA also allows journalists or researchers to obtain information or statistics collected by the government in order to publish that information.

There are a number of records that can be obtained from different agencies such the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of State (DOS) or other DHS agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or United States Citizen and Immigration Services. The key issue is to identify what agency to send your record request to. Here is a useful table on the documents that may be obtained through FOIA.

Here is how to submit a FOIA request for personal immigration files.

Here is a complete guide to FOIA with USCIS.

If you have questions, there is no substitute for experienced legal assistance. Here is our guide to selecting a good immigration lawyer.