WASHINGTON — At a time when researching family history is booming, the nation’s immigration and citizenship agency has proposed dramatically hiking fees to access records from the first half of the 20th century. The move has outraged professional and amateur genealogists, who argue that the increase would effectively put valuable immigration information out of reach for many.
The fees would nearly triple, and in many cases, they would rise nearly 500 percent, from $130 to $625 to obtain a single paper file. The little-known Genealogy Program administered by US Citizenship and Immigration Services allows genealogists, family historians, and other researchers to obtain citizenship and alien registration files, visa applications, and other records documenting the lives of deceased immigrants who arrived in the United States between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.
The waves of western and southern Europeans who came through Ellis Island at the turn of the century are included in the records, as are Jews who sought refuge from Nazi Germany before World War II and Mexican guest farmworkers who helped stem the labor shortage during the conflict. They were followed by Holocaust survivors and those fleeing Communist rule in Central Europe and the Soviet Union.
The files sometimes include hundreds of pages, documenting long waits at Ellis Island or, in the case of Japanese, Italians, and Germans who lived in the United States during World War II, FBI reports about the immigrant’s friends, family, and political activities.
The fee increase ‘‘has to be very important to anyone who does hobbyist genealogy. It would make it impossible for most average people to access’’ the files, said Rich Venezia, a Pittsburgh-based professional genealogist who teaches courses on how to obtain the USCIS records.
Venezia is spearheading a public campaign to persuade the agency, now under the leadership of acting deputy homeland security secretary Ken Cuccinelli, to withdraw the fee hikes before the window for public comment closes Dec. 16.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials declined to explain exactly how they arrived at the new fee amounts. But the agency has said that it must increase fees across the board — including substantial hikes for green card and citizenship applications — to avoid a $1.26 billion annual budget shortfall. By law, USCIS must fund itself through fees.
‘‘USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis,’’ the agency said. A date has not been set for the new fees to go into effect.
The increases come at a time when millions of Americans are discovering a passion for family genealogy, spurring the growth of websites and services that cater to them. Ancestry.com now has more than 3 million paying subscribers.
These amateur genealogists and their professional counterparts extol the value of the USCIS files in unraveling family histories and, in some cases, revealing long-buried secrets.
Jennifer Mendelsohn’s request for an alien registration file in 2017 revealed one such family secret, which the Baltimore journalist and genealogist found oddly amusing. Mendelsohn’s great-grandfather, Meyer Stanger, had been among a group of men arrested for grand larceny after fencing $36,000 in dungarees and aprons stolen from the factory where he worked, according to a news report from the time surfaced by Mendelsohn.
Much more consequentially, Mendelsohn said, she never would have known her great-grandmother’s hometown were it not for a USCIS file she obtained in 2018.
Yetta Cushman, who immigrated around 1890, never became a US citizen and died before Social Security existed. ‘‘There was absolutely no trail.’’
Mendelsohn discovered the existence of Cushman’s brother, who lived in Brooklyn, through a DNA test and later obtained his alien registration form. Listed there was the family’s hometown: Savran, Russia, now part of Ukraine. The discovery was important to her family’s sense of identity, she said, and has inspired her to dig deeper.
Mendelsohn’s penchant for genealogical research extends well beyond her own family, as founder of the viral ‘‘Resistance Genealogy’’ project that unearths the family histories of pundits and politicians who target immigrants.
While Mendelsohn doesn’t request USCIS files for those genealogical digs due to long wait times, she said the fee hikes underscore her sense that the Trump administration takes ‘‘an antagonist stance’’ toward immigration, both present and past.
‘‘What’s frustrating to me is that we have no other recourse,’’ but to pay the price USCIS sets for the files, said Mendelsohn. ‘‘There is no other way to get this information. . . . If they can do this to these records, they can do this to any records. It’s incumbent upon us to speak up and try to stop this.’’
Alex Calzareth, a family historian in Long Island City, N.Y., is an especially heavy user of the genealogical program, having obtained more than 550 files from USCIS, many through the Freedom of Information Act, before the agency started charging for the files in 2008.
After securing a naturalization, or C-File, in 2002, Calzareth discovered precisely why his divorced great-grandparents had remarried after escaping the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and immigrating to the United States in 1940.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service recommended denying the cohabitating couple’s petition for citizenship in 1945 due to ‘‘poor moral character,’’ Calzareth said. Felix and Grete Rafael decided to call as a witness their rabbi, who testified that they were still married under Jewish law.