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Proposed Fee Hike Would Make Public Immigration Records Almost 500 Percent More Expensive

The USCIS says it needs to raise fees to avoid a budget shortfall. Critics say it will make genealogical research prohibitively expensive.

National Archives

Learning about your ancestors is about to get a lot more expensive if a proposed fee adjustment (they really don’t like to use the word “increase”) goes into effect.

First, some background. The primary function of USCIS (United Sates Citizen and Immigration Services) is to administer the current (awful) immigration and naturalization system. But as the successor to the INS, which was founded in 1933 as a replacement for the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization, it’s also the steward of tons of historical immigration records, the kind of stuff that’s priceless to genealogists researching the families of the millions of people who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unfortunately, unlike the National Archives, the USCIS is a fee-funded agency. It claims that 96 percent of its budget comes from fees like those you pay to renew your passport, apply for U.S. citizenship and, yes, access its extensive archive of immigration records.

With the current fee schedule, the agency says it will have an annual shortfall of $1.3 billion. To make up the difference, it’s raising fees across the board by a weighted average of 21 percent. The increases to genealogy fees are even more draconian.

When the genealogy records program at the agency was started in 2006, the fee for each index search request and copies of records if found was $20. It was more than tripled to $65 in 2016, but now the agency wants researchers to pay $240 for an index search request and $385 to obtain copies. That’s a staggering increase that, despite the best efforts of genealogists, seems likely to pass.

There doesn’t appear to be a specific date for fees to go up, but the proposed changes in the Federal Register “may affect the second year of the biennial period,” referring to FY 2020, which began on October 1.

The bottom line: if you’ve been thinking about looking into your family history, you should do so as soon as possible. And if you’re so inclined, today is the last day to submit public comments on the proposed changes.