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Requesting an Immigration File

(and how to obtain the US Social Security Application)

Alien Registration Form | Who's Got What | USCIS Essays | New USCIS Immigration Service

Social Security Application Copy Request

USCIS Genealogy Service

G-1041A Form for Mailing

Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), individuals can petition the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for copies of an immigrant ancestors' records.  The file may include the Alien Registration Form, 1st or 2nd papers, naturalization documents, yearly alien reports and perhaps other documents.  Most files are quite small, so it is best request the entire file (Record Copy Request).  By having complete copies of records, genealogists will maximize the amount of information received critical to their search.

The The program was reformulated in August, 2008, and the petition process has been revised.  See below for details.  The response time can be lengthy.  In late 2009, the response time was running four months.

How do I go about petitioning?

 A petition request can either be mailed or submitted online.  Any person can submit a petition.

It is a two-step process.   First, you must start by requesting an "Index Search Request."  This essentially is a determination if a file exists for a particular immigrant, and what's in it.   The second step, once you are advised of a file and the contents, is to request a copy of it.  Each step requires a fee.

Make sure you send documentation that attests proof of death (death certificate, obituary) if the immigrant was born less than 100 years ago. This will speed things up immensely.

The instructions on the USCIS web site are quite clear and complete.  Pay special attention to the "Quick Tips" section, which is extremely useful.  I won't go over the process here.  The remainder of this page provides additional information that will speed your inquiry in my experience.

For most immigration records before World War II, the files are quite thin and will probably contain only a few pages.  Once the file has been located (Index Search Request), submit a follow-up "Record Request" of the entire file.   Try not to specify particular documents as you really won't know what's on each form until you get them.  Each time you make a request, it will take additional months. 

Enclose other information which will help the BCIS - Help yourself by helping them

Remember, you've got a human looking through millions of handwritten files for your immigrant.  You need to help them.  While the BCIS has made tremendous improvements, I still find their forms lacking in space to include supporting information.  If you are mailing, add the addtional information or copies of helpful documents separately.   If you are submitting online, the space for additional information "Part 2b - Immigrant Information (Optional) [Page 4 of 4]  - Enter other information about the immigrant that may assist with the search. "   is tiny and will not display all your typing, so you may want to compose your information in  a separate document tool and paste it into the tiny box when it is composed.   In my experiments it seems limited to roughly 330 words, so write crisply.  There is no restriction when you write by mail.   There is also an opportunity to include PDF or graphics files (such as scans) with information that might help narrow down the choices. 

As you know by now, name spellings are the most notorious for having been changed.  You want to be certain to include all known and possible spelling variations.  If you have naturalization information, social security numbers, etc. include them.   Include anything that might be useful in distinguishing one immigrant from another - approx birth date and year, places of residence in the US and timeframes, place of birth, wife's name, parent's names.   If you are uncertain about the information SAY SO.  This helps the researcher tremendously. 

The key is to include any info that might be HELPFUL, rather than filling out the form verbatim. I asked for copies. I made it clear it was for genealogy purposes and that this was my grandmother, so it really mattered to me (not to be used as part of some legal proceedings, etc.). I left a phone number and I said THANK YOU. My thought was if you recognize these clerks are doing this manually, and you make their job easier or more pleasant, they are more apt to persist in finding the record.

Alien Registration Form

Of the greatest genealogical use was the USA Alien Registration document contained in an USCIS/INS file.

In 1940, the US Government, getting jittery about a war breaking out, required all aliens to register. It contains a boatload of information. Even if your immigrant never became a naturalized citizen, as long as he/she resided in the US in 1940, he/she was required to complete this document. The document contains when/where/how they immigrated, where they immigrated from (*village name* , most important), date of birth and port of departure in most cases. You may petition the INS for a copy of this document. This is a treasure trove of information.  More details are found at INS/USCIS Historical Essays page. There is a good facsimile of an Alien Registration form at this site.

"The Alien Registration Act passed by Congress on 29th June, 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government. The law also required all alien residents in the United States over 14 years of age to file a comprehensive statement of their personal and occupational status and a record of their political beliefs. Within four months a total of 4,741,971 aliens had been registered. The main objective of the act was to undermine the American Communist Party and other left-wing political groups in the United States." Source Spartacus Educational

Designed as a national defense measure, the Act required all aliens (non-US citizens) within the United States to register with the U.S. Government. They registered at Post Offices, and their registration forms were forwarded to the USCIS/INS for processing. After processing, a receipt card (Form AR-3) was mailed to each registrant as proof of their compliance with the law. Source:  US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Why Isn't the Green Card Green?

Requesting a Copy of a Social Security Application

The Social Security Administration began keeping records in November 1936.  It is a useful tool for the researcher to obtain more details about the immigrant.  If your immigrant was legally employed in the US in 1936, s/he would have been required to complete this form.  You can obtain this even if you do not know the Social Security Number.  This application form is known as "Request for copy of Original Application for Social Security Card (Form SS-5)."

The G-639 Freedom of Information Act Petition is a general form, applicable to all government agencies.  It is generic enough to let the user request pretty much any information the government may hold.  Therefore, you need to be specific enough in your request and determine for yourself which agency is likely to hold the information you seek.  The FOIA process is used to obtain the SS-5 from the Social Security Administration

You should request an original copy of the application, do NOT request a "computer printout" or a transcription.  Transcribed or computer copies only contain partial information, and often times contain mistakes due to poor handwriting.

The application is submitted by mail and a wait of several months for a response is typical.


Who's Got What

While the INS/USCIS may have most extant immigration records (manifests, alien registration forms), it does not necessarily have the naturalization/citizenship files.

  • NARA general maintains 1906+ naturalization records from Federal Courts only
  • Records from local courts are kept in the respective state or local district archive.

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Last Update: 15 November 2020                                                    Copyright 2003-2021, Bill Tarkulich