DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It might get a lot more expensive to try and trace your family's roots. Many people who immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s have files at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That agency now wants to raise the prices to obtain these records, not by a little bit but by something like 500%. Renee Carl is with me. She's a genealogist who works with clients who use these records. Thanks for coming in.
RENEE CARL: My pleasure, David.
GREENE: So can you start by telling us what records are actually held by this agency?
CARL: There are millions of records held at this agency. A-Files, which are Alien Files, Naturalization Certificate Files, or C-Files, Visa Files - you applied for a visa to come to the United States. There might be something called a Registry File if, during the process of naturalization, the government couldn't find you on a ship manifest, so they were trying to document how you entered the country in the first place.
GREENE: You can literally put together people's lives through doing this research here.
CARL: This is immigration history. If someone is coming from a displaced persons camp in Europe, they would have filled out all this paperwork while still in Europe. Then you get the information on when they come in. You get a photograph if there's a Visa File. You almost always get a photograph.
GREENE: You can see a picture of the person or family, yeah.
CARL: Right. And sometimes you've never seen a picture of your great-grandfather or your grandfather other than as a grandfather, not as a young person.
CARL: You always get signatures. If you don't get a photo, you're going to get a signature, which is a way to have that human touch in a record.
GREENE: You must see people's eyes just light up as they get ahold of these records.
CARL: This gives you a way to understand what their lives were like when you can't ask them the questions anymore.
GREENE: Are there certain populations who seem to use this service more than others?
CARL: Any person who's researching their immigrant history would potentially find something in these records, but there are a couple populations that are disproportionately impacted because of immigration laws - people of Japanese descent who were not citizens until after World War II, people of Chinese descent who were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act and therefore weren't citizens until after 1952. Their records are only going to be found by requesting USCIS to give them the records of their families.
GREENE: You did some of your own research through the service on your family, right?
CARL: Yes. Most professional genealogists start out by experimenting on their own family.
CARL: The first time I filed a application to get information from USCIS was about my grandfather.
GREENE: Wow. What'd you learn?
CARL: So my grandfather came to this country as a child and became a citizen. But in the 1960s, my grandfather had no idea where his Certificate of Naturalization was. He wanted a copy of it that had his name on it. And he also needed to prove how old he was to Social Security so he could start collecting his benefits.
Being from Eastern Europe and coming here as a child, he did not have a birth certificate. So in order to prove his age, there were letters in his file from the St. Louis school board saying that he started first grade at age 7. It gave the name of the school that he attended. These are these little things that obviously no one alive today is going to know, but it gave me this insight into a person as a child. We don't think of our grandparents as children; we think of them as grandparents.
CARL: And you realize they had this whole life that they lived. So these records are one way to take a peek back into a different part of our immigrant ancestors' lives.
GREENE: So these fee increases - I mean, I know it's very confusing - but is there any way to say roughly, like, what it would cost a person if these changes go through, compared to what it used to cost?
CARL: At minimum, it would cost $240 to put in a request and receive records from USCIS under these proposed changes.
GREENE: So that's just paying the money to look, and there might not be anything that comes up.
CARL: Now, some of the records would be included in that $240 fee. But if there is a paper file, they would add on another $385 to the fee. So that's a total of $625 for one file on one person.
GREENE: And up to this point, you probably wouldn't spend even anywhere close to a hundred dollars for all that?
CARL: Right now, it's $65 dollars for a search...
CARL: ...In their master index, and then it's another $65 to receive the records.
GREENE: I mean, that's a big difference for people.
CARL: There's a huge difference. It's already expensive for records that should be at the National Archives. Many of these records should be at National Archives and free for people to access.
GREENE: I guess I just want to ask you, I mean, as important as these files are to people, I mean - the press release from the agency is basically saying they're overextended, they haven't collected enough fees to cover doing these applications, and so it's basically been partially subsidizing this - what is the argument that the government should be partially subsidizing this service?
CARL: These records represent the history of 20th century immigration in our country. Our immigrant ancestors paid and filed fees when they filled out the forms in the first place. If these records were transferred over to the National Archives, they would be available for research, and these records would then be held in a place that's used to handling records all the time, not in an agency that focuses on immigration and naturalization.
GREENE: Thanks so much for coming in. We really appreciate it.
CARL: Thank you.
GREENE: Renee Carl is a genealogist. And we should say, the public can send comments to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as part of its public comment period, which ends on December 30.
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