The Tale of Two Immigration-Related Freedom of Information Act Requests

By David North on July 11, 2011

Last year the Center for Immigration Studies filed formal requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with two different federal agencies, and we got answers of vastly differing quality. Both requests related to operations of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The faster, totally complete answer came in weeks from the U.S. Department of the Treasury (see the table below) and cost us $431.97; the much slower, incomplete and perhaps deliberately evasive reply came from USCIS, after a wait of 14 months, and was free.

Why was Treasury involved? Well, all of the financial relationships with the so-called lockbox operations government-wide are overseen by Treasury, and that includes the ones run for USCIS. These are mail-opening, mail-sorting, check-depositing operations and they handle the intake of the millions of pieces of paper the agency receives each year.

Our question of Treasury was—given all the other goodies that JPMorgan had received from the government, including the TARP loans and permission to hire some 100+ additional H-1Bs in a single year—how much did USCIS pay JPMorgan for the lockbox operations in FY 2009? The USCIS press operation said they could not tell us, we would need to mount a FOIA campaign vis-a-vis Treasury.

We did; it took about three weeks and cost us $431.97 but we got the full answer: that year JPMorgan was paid $89,116,473.94 to manage the various USCIS lockbox operations in several cities; further, JPMorgan has all of the agency’s lockbox business.

To the extent you can have a gratifying relationship with the government we did with Treasury on this matter. Our phone calls and letters were answered promptly and pleasantly, and when we learned that we needed to pay Treasury, it accepted a personal check, as opposed to a corporate check or a money order. And the documents they sent us (see the table) were immaculate. For more on our transactions with Treasury, and JPMorgan’s dealings with the government, see our blog here.

Our other request was sent directly to USCIS. It dealt with an important immigration policy subject—how often did USCIS say yes, and how often did it say no to each of the various types of petitions it receives each year. The State Department routinely publishes such data. We wanted the comparable data for USCIS.

As we noted in a recent blog we received a reply to our FOIA request from USCIS on petition-decision statistics some 14 months after we filed it.

We had asked for all decisions, in FY 2009, on all petitions filed with USCIS. What we got were data on three classes of petitions only: fairly useful information on the 99%+ rate of approvals of petitions seeking nonimmigrant workers, and data on determinations regarding trafficking and crime victims, in which the denial rates were considerably higher.

So, at the very least, the agency misunderstood what we wanted and responded to the request at a leisurely pace.

What little was sent to us was in legible but tiny type, occupying less than a third of an 8 x 11 page; it had been gathered, according to a footnote, on May 10, 2010 and May 17, 2010, but was sent to us more than a year later.

Even more frustrating, there were no data on R-1 religious workers within the table about nonimmigrant workers, which I suspect was no oversight. The agency is terribly sensitive about saying anything about this program, which three government agencies found to be riddled with fraud.

Why else would there be a table with data on 27 varieties of these petitions, including numbers on P-3S petitions (for servants and support personnel for culturally unique alien artists), on Q-1 petitions (a cultural exchange program) and on TN-1 petitions (for NAFTA people), but there was nothing for R-1, which falls right between Q and TN on most USCIS lists of visas?

If Treasury can be open about its relations with powerful JPMorgan, specifically, why can’t USCIS tell us about its relations with alien religious workers, generally?

A table summarizing the comparison of these two FOIA responses follows.

Subject RaisedYes/no data on USCIS decisions on various classes of alien petitions in FY 2009How much was JPMorgan paid for USCIS lockbox operations in FY 2009?
Importance of subject matter to agency contactedVery significantMarginal
Speed of ResponseExtremely Slow: the CIS letter of inquiry was received on either April 2 or April 5, 2010, USCIS correspondence disagrees on this point, the response was dated June 2, 2011, 14 months laterVery Rapid: about three weeks in all; the report arrived 11 days after the check was mailed
Substantive Quality of ResponseInadequate and perhaps deliberately incomplete: CIS was given bits of data about decisions regarding a single form (the I-129) and on two visa classes (T and U); data on religious workers R-1 were missing. See text.Excellent: although the wording was bureaucratic all the information desired was provided—a payment in FY 2009 of $89,116,473.94 to JPMorgan for USCIS lock-box operations; JPMorgan has the USCIS monopoly.
Quality of Document
Dreadful: tiny, hard-to-read table of incomplete data; two misspellings within six wordsExcellent: beautifully produced letter and chart; no misspellings; material sent in a large envelope so nothing was folded
Quality of Related Telephone conversationsExcellentExcellent
Cost to CISnothing$431.97

Source: USCIS and US Treasury correspondence retained by the Center for Immigration Studies; characterizations by the author.