By: Kelly Bilz
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced some upcoming changes in November. Among these changes are the fees for genealogical services: the fee for an index search will increase from $65 to $240, and the fee for a records request (for the thing itself) will increase from $65 to $385. When you do the math, this is a 492% increase. Not only that, but it costs a combined $625 to find and retrieve just one record, which is most likely a single piece of paper.
In response, a website, Records, Not Revenue, was developed to combat the outrageous fee hikes. The site was created by an ad hoc group, which includes Reclaim the Records. There, you can find examples of the records affected by these fee hikes, such as visa files, naturalization records, and alien files (or A-Files), as well as find ways to take action.
USCIS raised its fees just three years ago in 2016 without uproar. Genealogists are (mostly) reasonable people. We understand that, given the volume of records and information these files contain, it takes a lot of time and resources to track down that one important piece of data. However, as Reclaim the Records pointed out in their newsletter about the hikes, “Many of these records should already be publicly accessible under the law.”
Again, it takes a long time to put collections online, especially collections of this volume. However, raising the fees so much, and so quickly, is not conducive to public access. Most genealogists are hobbyists, and the people doing genealogy in their free time typically do not have the resources to drop $625 on every historic record they need. (Again, $625 is the combined rate for searching and retrieving–but it’s kind of hard to do one without the other, right?)
Of course, it’s not just genealogical files and services being affected. Other fees related to current immigration records are increasing, which has an impact on people living in the country now, not years and years ago. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a list of all the changes and adjustments here. There has been pushback against these extravagant citizenship fee hikes, too.
As written on the Records, Not Revenue website, “Don’t Hold Our History Hostage.”
Kelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.