Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Requests

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows individuals to access information from federal agencies. The purpose behind FOIA is to promote open, transparent government. Anyone may submit a FOIA request for any type of record, although there are exemptions that allow agencies to withhold information from being released. The FOIA states that an agency “shall” provide records to “any person” who (1) reasonably describes those records and (2) submits the request in accordance with agency rules. There are nine exemptions that allow the agencies to withhold information. For example, records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes are exempt if they would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions. The statute requires that an agency narrowly construe these exemptions and the burden is on the agency to demonstrate that it has withheld information subject to an exemption.

The Privacy Act (PA) provides individuals with a means to access government records about themselves. The exemptions are similar to but not exactly the same as under the FOIA.

When an individual asks a federal agency to provide access to records, the agency should consider the request under both the FOIA and the PA.


Our law firm uses FOIA/PA requests often to learn more about a client’s immigration history, such as getting copies of previously filed applications and petitions, or getting information about prior encounters with officers enforcing immigration law at airports and the border. Examples of immigration-related FOIA requests include:

  • Request a copy of your alien file (A-file) from USCIS
  • Request your entry-exit records from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • Request prior visa applications and consular officer decisions from the State Department

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The Importance of A-Files
The Importance of A-Files

Borderless Magazine recently ran an informative story about “A-files” and the importance of a filing a request under FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) to USCIS for copies of one’s A-file. A-files contain records of all interactions between a noncitizen and immigration agencies and officers. This includes copies of previously filed applications and petitions. This…

What’s the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?
What’s the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law establishing the public’s right to obtain information from federal government files. Any person, including a noncitizen, can file a FOIA request for a copy of a government agency’s file.