Portal Lets Immigration Agency Deliver FOIA Responses Digitally

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People filing Freedom of Information Act requests with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will no longer have to wait on the post office for a response.

USCIS on Tuesday opened up its new Freedom of Information Act Immigration Records System, or FIRST, an online portal to submit, manage and receive responses to FOIA requests. Prior to the launch, requestors would have to wait to receive a response through the mail in the form of stacks of paper or burned CDs.

The agency would send some responses by email, but only when the file sizes were small enough. The analog process is cumbersome but the only option for large files.

“Last fiscal year—2017—we burned and delivered 117,364 CDs to FOIA requesters and printed and delivered 2,551 cases containing responsive records to paper,” USCIS spokesman Steve Blando told Nextgov. “Due to the high volume of FOIA requests USCIS receives each year, we have never had a scalable electronic platform for the digital release of records.”

Blando said the agency isn’t sure how many electronic responses it issued annually to date, but “the volume was well under 1 percent of the total cases the department responded to.”

Now, all FOIA requests can be managed through the FIRST portal, enabling the agency to better track and deliver responses and instant access to those responses for the requestor using a myUSCIS account.

The new portal is a step in the right direction but should be approached with caution, according to Alex Howard, an open government advocate and former deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“This looks like an evolutionary improvement, not a revolutionary one,” he told Nextgov.

Howard points out that USCIS has been under congressional mandate since 2007 to create an electronic reading room and could have used the government’s FOIAOnline portal. He also cited privacy issues that have arisen in the past.

“Modernization is progress, but DHS has overstepped what the law allows in the past with respect to requiring more personally identifiable information,” he said. “I'd be careful to praise this as anything like a ‘game changer’ until we see how it's implemented and whether it improves anything for requesters.”