I was told I should submit a FOIA request. What does that mean?

FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA was created to encourage government transparency. It allows members of the public to request access to records from any federal agency. Under the FOIA, federal agencies are required to provide this information unless the information is private or is protected by an exemption.


Why should I submit a FOIA request?

If you, or someone you know, would like to apply for immigration benefits, the applicant will certainly be asked to answer questions about their immigration and criminal history. If the applicant does not remember the details of any contact he or she has had with authorities, a FOIA request could provide useful information.

For example, if the applicant is unsure how many times, he or she entered the United States or the exact dates of entry, the results of a FOIA request could provide that information. Another example is if an applicant does not recall if he or she was ever arrested or charged criminally. Before proceeding with an application for immigration benefits, it is best to know the applicant’s complete history.


Which agencies accept FOIA requests?

All federal agencies accept FOIA requests. However, the agencies which most commonly have immigration records are: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of State (DOS), the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), among others.


Is there a fee to submit a FOIA request?

There is no fee to submit a FOIA request initially. The FOIA does allow federal agencies to recover some of the fees for the time it takes to search for records, review the records, and make copies; however, this is rare.

Some agencies and law firms charge a fee to submit a FOIA request on behalf of an applicant and then review the results once they are available.


How long will it take for me to receive a response to my FOIA request?

Most agencies review requests in the order in which they are received. The time it takes to respond to a request depends on how complex the request is. Simple requests are usually specific and limited in scope, while complex requests may involve multiple documents in multiple locations. The more specific your request is, the more likely it will be processed more quickly. The processing time also depends on the number of requests the particular agency is already processing.


Is there any risk to submitting a FOIA request? What if I do not have any immigration status in the United States?

In general, submitting a FOIA request does not pose a risk to the applicant, even if the requestor does not have immigration status. There may be greater risk in cases where the applicant has been deemed a fugitive by immigration authorities. If an attorney or representative assists an applicant with their request, they can list the attorney or representative’s mailing address instead of the applicant’s address on the request.


Please note: This is an overview of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and FOIA requests and is not meant to be legal advice. For information on your specific situation, we recommend you use our contact form to schedule an appointment with our office. We would be glad to help you determine the best option for you.