|For Immediate Release:
March 18, 2010
David Burnham, TRAC (202) 518-9000
Susan B. Long, TRAC (315) 443-3563
|USCIS Letter of March 4, 2010 (PDF)|
|TRAC's March 18, 2010 Response (PDF)|
|Help Support TRAC's FOIA Efforts|
|Other TRAC FOIA Activities|
Syracuse, NY — The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) today filed a protest with U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) objecting to the agency's extraordinary demand that the university-based data research organization pay the agency $111,930 for a description of the information stored in one of its databases.
The information, requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), concerns the agency's processing of requests for naturalization. The request had been pending in the agency without a response for nearly four years — 1,316 days.
Details about USCIS's failures were outlined in a letter that TRAC sent today to T. Diane Cejka, director of the agency's FOIA/Privacy Act Office, complaining about the response to its FOIA request of July 17, 2006.
In its letter, TRAC reminded USCIS of the White House's December 8, 2009 Open Government Directive declaring that openness and transparency would be the touchstones of the administration and instructing the agencies to take concrete steps to improve public access to government information. The declaration was a follow-up to an earlier more general pledge President Obama made shortly after he took office.
TRAC, a part of Syracuse University, has for more than 20 years used the FOIA to obtain hundreds of thousands of very detailed records from agencies like the DHS, the Justice Department, the Office of Personnel Management, and the IRS. This information is then checked for accuracy and completeness, analyzed and the results posted on its free public web site (http://trac.syr.edu). The data is then added to TRAC's data warehouse, and access provided via the web to allow others to mine the information. Over the years, news organizations, public interest groups, universities and the government itself have frequently used the special reports and data obtained by TRAC to analyze and better undertstand what the government is doing and not doing.
In its continuing efforts to monitor federal government operations, TRAC currently has four FOIA suits pending in district and appellate-level courts. In addition it has filed scores of administrative-level requests under FOIA that are now under consideration.
USCIS, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for regulating lawful immigration to the United States. It currently has 18,000 employees and contractors working from 250 offices all over the world.
The information requested from USCIS was an electronic copy of what usually is called a database "table schema," in this case a list of the separate fields existing within USCIS's CLAIMS4 database.
USCIS's actions were made worse by the fact that since shortly after submitting TRAC's first request in 2006 it repeatedly reached out to the agency — both by phone and by letter — offering assistance should the agency have any questions and volunteering to assist in other ways. This included offers to further specify or even restrict what TRAC was asking for if that would speed a response.
In its protest, TRAC's co-directors — Susan B. Long and David Burnham — informed Ms. Cejka that they were astonished by her letter. "We routinely seek identical information from other agencies about their databases," Long and Burnham said in their letter." We routinely receive this kind of documentation from them. We cannot recall ever being asked to pay a fee since producing a copy of a list of the data items is typically such a simple matter. Even for a large database containing thousands of separate fields of information the basic listing would usually be less than 100 pages."
The unlawful USCIS response to TRAC's request came shortly before the release of a report by the National Security Archive charging that President Obama's record of openness had been mixed and that there was little evidence the overall performance of the federal agencies had improved.