What is the Freedom of Information Act, and how can it help an immigrant in the United States?
Hi. I’m Jim Hacking. Immigration law practicing attorney here in St. Louis, Missouri. Sometimes potential new clients come to our office. They have a sense that they are in some type of immigration trouble, but they’re not real sure what the status of their situation is exactly. They don’t have a lot of the documents associated with their case, and they need some help.
One of the great tools that’s available to the immigration practitioner is to allow them to fill out a Freedom of Information Act form. This is a form that allows us to get access to the immigrant’s complete file. Sometimes people have come as asylees or refugees, and they don’t have a lot of the paperwork associated with when they first came to the United States, or they filed a petition a long time ago, and they don’t really know whatever happened to that petition.
Sometimes we want to make sure that what the client is telling us jives with what they told the immigration service previously, and when I say jives, I mean that it matches. That the two stories are consistent. We want to make sure that we’re not putting our client into some kind of peril by not being fully aware of what they’ve previously told the immigration service.
The law allows someone like that to fill out a form and to give us, the immigration attorney, access to that file. It typically takes about six to eight weeks to get a copy of the file, and we have found this to be very effective in helping us prepare our client’s case. Sometimes years have gone by, and we get these files that are very old that have information in there that we just couldn’t have gotten straight from the client. Either through the course of time or poor record keeping, they just don’t have the files themselves, so it allows us to see exactly where the immigrant stands.
They’re called FOIA, Freedom of information. Sometimes we get FOIA requests that responded to, and the information that we have is completely contrary to what our client’s told us, so that’s a really red flag that we need to be careful in what we decide to do.
So how does this work in the real world? Well, we recently had a guy come see us who there were questions about how he had come to the united States as a refugee and exactly what he had told the UN High Commission on Refugees about his status, and specifically about his marital status. After we sent off the forms, the CD came back. The documents come on an Adobe PDF CD.
We looked through them with the client, and it turns out that because of the information we found out in the file, we’re not able to apply for citizenship for him at this time. He needs to be very careful with proceeding with the immigration service. If we hadn’t sent off that Freedom of Information Act request, we would not have been able to understand exactly what he had told them, and we wouldn’t know the real trouble that he’s probably in.
It helps us with deportations. It helps us with filings for new immigration benefit. We’re always harping on our clients to obtain the next immigration benefit available. One of the exceptions to that rule is if we are concerned that if they apply for a new immigration benefit that they are going to be putting themselves in trouble, so we always want to make sure that the client has as strong a case as possible, that they’re not doing anything inconsistent with prior filings, and the Freedom of Information Act and the documents that we are able to obtain through those really help us.
Sometimes the documents are redacted. Sometimes they’re heavily redacted, either for privacy concerns or other statutory concerns, including security. Sometimes the documents will come back with big chunks missing, but we can usually piece together what exactly happened. It’s a great tool that allows us to see a complete picture of the puzzle.
If you have questions about how the Freedom of Information Act might be able to help you. How filing for a FOIA can help us discern what’s going on in your case. Feel free to give us a call at 314-961-8200. It really works in all kinds of cases, unless someone hasn’t really applied for immigration benefits before. Or you can always e-mail us. firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks a lot.