Understanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

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The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) was signed into law in 1967, giving the public the right to access records from any federal agency. Under this act, any person can file a “FOIA request” to any federal agency to request documents about themselves or others. 

You may be wondering why anyone would need to request this. There are many reasons, but the biggest for many people and attorneys is to learn what each agency can tell them about their immigration or criminal history. This is important when applying for an immigration benefit, such as a green card, citizenship, Asylum, TPS, and so on. It is also useful when fighting removal cases such as a deportation order. 

U.S. immigration law contains many harsh penalties for making false statements on immigration applications. For example, the case of Pankaj Kumar S. Patel, a citizen of India who was seeking his green card but made a huge mistake. He faced deportation after falsely claiming that he was a U.S. citizen on his license renewal application. 

To avoid a huge mistake like Mr. Patel’s, it is recommended that anyone applying for an immigrant benefit first request a FOIA to see the paper trail of their immigration history or criminal records.

This article wants to make it easier to understand the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and also address the following questions:

  1. Who can make a FOIA request?
  2. How can I make a FOIA request?
  3. How long does the process take?

1. Who can make a FOIA request?

Any person regardless of their immigration status can file a FOIA request. By law, this includes U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants, organizations, universities, businesses, and state and local governments.

2. How to make a FOIA request?

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) allows you to file a request online or by mail. If you wish to file online, please visit First, you will need to create an account with USCIS. Then, you will have to fill out as much information as you have about the person you are requesting a FOIA for (either yourself or someone else with their permission). Lastly, review if your information is correct, click “I consent” and hit submit. 

If you wish to file by mail, complete and sign Form G-639, Then mail it to the following address:

National Records Center (NRC)
FOIA/PA Office
P.O. Box 648010
Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010

3. How long does the process take?

By law, agencies are required to respond to requests for access to records within 20 business days (which excludes Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays). If you have not received your records within this time frame, please check the status of your case online by visiting:

**Noticias para Inmigrantes is a media and communications organization that provides independent reporting and commentary on issues affecting immigrants in the United States. It should be noted that we do not provide legal assistance or legal advice for any case unless we interview a specialized source on the subject. It is important to clarify that each case is different, and it is important to consult with your attorney.

If you wish to receive legal assistance, we encourage you to read our article Meet the Organizations that Offer Legal Assistance in the United States.

Mitzi Colin Lopez is a Digital Ads Content Creator and Experimenter at Noticias Para Inmigrantes. Her origin as a Mexican immigrant characterizes and drives her to empower the Latinx, Hispanic and immigrant communities. She is a recent graduate of West Chester University, where she obtained her bachelor’s in Political Science and Spanish. Her passions include social justice, advocacy, hiking, traveling, and weightlifting.