Description of Citizenship Database Available – If You’re Willing to Pay Nearly $112,000

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After taking nearly four years to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. immigration agency is demanding $111,930 for records that describe what is in a government database of claims for U.S. citizenship – not the actual database itself.

Balking at the agency’s request, the non-profit group that filed the FOIA says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is acting contrary to President Barack Obama’s openness directive, creating “arbitrary cost barriers” to what should be public information, and may be illegal.

The Transactional Records and Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based research organization, filed a request for documents on July 17, 2006, that would describe what is in the USCIS citizenship processing database.  TRAC received its first substantive response from the agency on March 4 this year.

“We have determined a fee in the amount of $111,930.00 is due,” according to the March 18 letter to the agency. “Even for a large database containing thousands of separate fields of information, the basic listing would usually be less than 100 pages.” A spokesman for the USCIS had no immediate comment.

Cejka’s estimate of the labor needed to fulfill TRAC’s request was particularly troubling to the researchers.  “Your letter provides no information why 861 man hours – a fulltime person working 40 hours a week for 5 months – is needed to perform such a simple task,” TRAC wrote. “Within an agency, most persons working with this database need this basic reference. In addition, with a click of the mouse or a simple command a person can usually output a fresh copy from the database itself.”

The FOIA law limits the types and amounts of fees that can be charged.  “It does this for a simple reason, Congress wanted to make sure that agencies didn’t set up arbitrary cost barriers to prevent public access to public information,” TRAC wrote.

The rate per hour also confounded TRAC. “Your form acknowledgement letter had stated that rates were $4.00, $7.00, and $10.25 respectively per quarter hour for clerical, professional, and managerial time.  Thus, hourly charges would be somewhere in the range of $16 to $41 – not $130,” TRAC wrote.

The agency’s demand for payment without an opportunity to discuss the matteris illegal, the group said. Citing Obama’s Dec. 8, 2009, Open Government Directive prodding agencies to improve access to information, particularly databases, TRAC said “USCIS has chosen to move in precisely the opposite direction.”

ABOUT THE DATA:
What:
Description of what is contained in a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database that processes claims for citizenship
Where: Washington, D.C.
Availability: Available for nearly $112,000
Usability:    Unknown

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The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.