When applying for a U.S. immigration benefit or fighting against removal or deportation, seeing the contents of your court records could be critical to winning your case. The U.S. government's files on you can provide important pieces of your immigration history, such as what happened in past court hearings and immigration judges' decisions that you might have lost or never received. The legal tool for seeing your government records is known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This federal law allows a person to access government records from the agency that created or received them.
As for how to actually get those records, the first thing to understand is that the U.S. government does not have a main office that processes FOIA requests for all federal departments and agencies. Each department and agency responds to people requesting copies by delving into its own records. The U.S. Immigration Court, formally called the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), is an agency under the Department of Justice. The EOIR holds all records of current deportation, removal and/or exclusion proceedings, including judges' orders and decisions.
Also realize that the main role of Immigration Court judges is to decide whether someone can remain in the United States lawfully or must instead be deported. The EOIR also includes an appeals court—formally called the Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.)—which can review the judge's decision in a case.
You can make a FOIA request only in writing, either online at the EOIR's Public Access link (which you'll need to register to use) or by letter.
If you decide to send a letter, it should include the language "Freedom of Information Act Request" in the opener. In the body of the letter, include your full legal name, alias (if any), maiden name (if any), date of birth, alien registration number ("A#," if known), the location of immigration hearings you attended or were scheduled for, and a description of the records you would like copies of.
The description can ask for specific documents, like "Order of Deportation In Absentia" or "Notice to Appear." If you are unsure what specific documents you need, you can ask for the entire file.
Along with your request, you must prove your identity. To do so, either take your unsigned letter to a notary public, who will check your identification documents and stamp it for a small fee (usually around $15) or submit an original signed Form EOIR-59, Certification and Release of Records.
Note, other agencies like USCIS use Form G-639 for FOIAs. The EOIR does not accept this form.
There is no initial fee request to submit a FOIA request. If fulfilling your request leads EOIR to exceed two hours of research or 100 pages of duplication, it might ask you to $25; or more, with advance notice.
The physical mailing address is:
Office of the General Counsel
Attn: FOIA Service Center
Executive Office for Immigration Review
5107 Leesburg Pike, Suite 2150
Falls Church, VA 22041
When the Immigration Court receives your FOIA request, it will send you a letter acknowledging the request and assigning it a tracking number. By law, federal agencies are expected to give some sort of response within 20 days, but the turnaround to actually produce documents could be longer.
If you are currently in removal/deportation proceedings, you can also request to review your Immigration Court file in person, at the Immigration Court where your case is being heard. Each Immigration Court has its own policies to review your file, so best practice is to contact the court clerk and get instructions.
Ordinarily, one makes a request in writing and the court clerk schedules a time to come to the Immigration Court in person. Note that the Immigration Court will not allow someone else to review your file on your behalf unless that person is your attorney of record or authorized representative.
Plan to bring paper to take notes, as you will not be allowed to take original documents from the file.
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