Breathe easy, family historians, at least for a time. Judge Jeffrey S. White from the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California placed an injunction on the Department of Homeland Security’s outrageous fee hike for United States Customs and Immigration Services records. The injunction remains in effect until trial or further instructions are issued from the court.
The new DHS rule was to have taken effect on Oct. 2. The injunction was issued on Sept. 29.
The fee hikes for genealogy are just a small part of the rule issued by the DHS, which widely covers USCIS fees for all immigration services. The suit against DHS was brought by a group of immigrants’ rights organizations such as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the International Rescue Committee and others, against DHS to stop the rate hike.
But, filing a separate brief on behalf of genealogists were attorneys for Reclaim the Records, an organization that seeks to make genealogical records public using the courts if necessary. RTR’s amicus curiae (literally translated as “friend of the court”) brief outlines why the fee hike is unfair to the millions of family history researchers in the United States.
One of the brief’s main points argues that the raise is “arbitrary and capricious.” No matter what the DHS says about the need to raise these rates, they never adequately explain why. They’ve offered no outline of the costs associated with performing records searches. Also, it turns out, many of the records held by DHS should have been turned over to the National Archives. Despite acknowledging this, DHS still refused to further cut its proposed increase.
Another point raised in RTR’s brief is that such an enormous raise will undercut genealogy businesses and make genealogical research too expensive for most people. Making the records too expensive to afford essentially makes them private, keeping them out of reach of the public even though they belong to the people of the United States.
USCIS Deputy Director of Policy Joseph Edlow issued the following statement in response to the injunction:
“This unfortunate decision leaves USCIS underfunded by millions of dollars each business day the fee rule is enjoined. Unlike most government agencies, USCIS is fee funded. As required by federal law, USCIS conducted a comprehensive biennial fee review and determined that current fees do not recover the cost of providing adjudication and naturalization services. This is nothing new or abnormal.”
What’s abnormal is the attempt to squeeze hard-earned dollars from people who want only to understand where they came from. Genealogists spend hundreds every year on database subscriptions, DNA tests and photocopy fees. We add to the economy by taking research trips (well, at least until COVID-19 came along) paying for gas, hotels and restaurants. We are all too happy to hand our cash over as long as the prices and fees we pay are, above all, fair.
Danny Klein is a librarian at the Jersey City Free Public Library’s New Jersey Room and a founding member of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @hudsongenealogy.