When interviewing clients who are seeking an immigration benefit, it’s sometimes difficult to get the knowledge and facts needed to properly assess a case. In some instances, the client isn’t always forthcoming with what they are willing to disclose, or may not recall all the facts, or simply doesn’t know the answers to the questions being asked. But with immigration law, it’s necessary to obtain the facts when advising clients and determine whether filing an application with USCIS can expose them to harm’s way via the widening deportation net. According to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, knowledge is power. Therefore, if I’m left with more questions than answers after interviewing a client and worry about the possible outcome of a case, I often suggest we submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
FOIA requests can be made to the Department of Homeland Security’s sub-agencies – USCIS, CBP, and/or ICE, depending on the information being sought after and it’s a great tool to use when unsure about a client’s immigration history. Information can be obtained that sheds light on a variety of things and pretty much removes the ambiguity from facts relevant to the case. For example, when making a FOIA request to USCIS, I can find out how a client came into the country, what was said on previous applications when trying to apply for a benefit, and if they possibly have an immigration benefits out there they didn’t even know about.
One of my earliest FOIA requests resulted in a client finding out she had been granted asylee status as a young teen. Prior to receiving the information from the FOIA request, this same client had pretty much lived in fear because her Temporary Protective Status had been expired for over two decades. Finding out that she was granted asylee status allowed us to adjust her status to legal permanent residency and after waiting four years, she naturalized as a US citizen. If we had never made that FOIA request, she would most likely still be living her life in the shadows.
FOIA requests made to any of the sub-agencies can be very specific and targeted or can be broad. I often make very specific requests to CBP to see if a client was placed into expedited removal proceedings prior to filing an I-130, alien relative petition. Those results typically get responded to within 4-6 weeks. A broader request would be requesting the client’s alien file, often referred to an A-file, such as the request I made for the client above who had asylum status. This file contains all the information and documents DHS maintains on a non-citizen.
The files are fascinating to look at – they contain all collected documents obtained from the non-citizen, as well as statements and notes written down during interviews by various immigration officers, as well as memos and correspondence. Complete A-files can take over 6 months to obtain so I only request them when necessary. Whenever a client is vulnerable to being inadmissible or deportable though, it is crucial to obtain whatever information may be out so there to properly assess a case. I wholeheartedly agree with Francis Bacon’s saying that knowledge is power; fortunately, the FOIA process is available to gather some pretty powerful facts when taking on a case with red flags.