Description of citizenship database available – if you’re willing to pay nearly $112,000

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After taking nearly four years to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. immigration agency is demanding $111,930 for records that describe what is in a government database of claims for U.S. citizenship – not the actual database itself.

Balking at the agency’s request, the non-profit group that filed the FOIA says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is acting contrary to President Barack Obama’s openness directive, creating “arbitrary cost barriers” to what should be public information, and may be illegal.

The Transactional Records and Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based research organization, filed a request for documents on July 17, 2006, that would describe what is in the USCIS citizenship processing database. TRAC received its first substantive response from the agency on March 4 this year.

“We have determined a fee in the amount of $111,930.00 is due,” according to the letter from T. Diane Cejka, director of the agency’s FOIA office. “This equates to an estimate of 861 man hours at a cost of $130.00 per hour.”

Half the fee requested — $55,965 – must be deposited within 30 days to proceed with the FOIA request, and the other half paid “before records are provided,” she said.

The agency’s letter and its rationale for the amount surprised TRAC. “We cannot recall ever being asked to pay a fee, since producing a copy of the list of data items is typically such a simple matter,” TRAC co-directors Susan Long and David Burnham wrote in a March 18 letter to the agency. “Even for a large database containing thousands of separate fields of information, the basic listing would usually be less than 100 pages.”

A spokesman for the USCIS had no immediate comment.

Cejka’s estimate of the labor needed to fulfill TRAC’s request was particularly troubling to the researchers. “Your letter provides no information why 861 man hours – a full-time person working 40 hours a week for 5 months – is needed to perform such a simple task,” TRAC wrote. “Within an agency, most persons working with this database need this basic reference. In addition, with a click of the mouse or a simple command a person can usually output a fresh copy from the database itself.”

The FOIA law limits the types and amounts of fees that can be charged. “It does this for a simple reason, Congress wanted to make sure that agencies didn’t set up arbitrary cost barriers to prevent public access to public information,” TRAC wrote.

The rate per hour also confounded TRAC. “Your form acknowledgment letter had stated that rates were $4.00, $7.00, and $10.25 respectively per quarter hour for clerical, professional, and managerial time. Thus, hourly charges would be somewhere in the range of $16 to $41 – not $130,” TRAC wrote.

The agency’s demand for payment without an opportunity to discuss the matteris illegal, the group said. Citing Obama’s Dec. 8, 2009, Open Government Directive prodding agencies to improve access to information, particularly databases, TRAC said “USCIS has chosen to move in precisely the opposite direction.”

UPDATE — March 19, 2010: On Friday, USCIS spokesman Bill Wright said the Department of Homeland Security, where USCIS is located, “in keeping with this Administration’s commitment to transparency, has been working diligently with FOIA requestors to promptly and fully respond to their requests. In that spirit, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will contact TRAC today to try and address their request in a prompt and cooperative manner.”

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: Description of what is contained in a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database that processes claims for citizenship

Where: Washington, D.C.

Availability: Available for nearly $112,000

Usability: Unknown

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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