Recent correspondences between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and a group called Save Our National Archives (SONA) has indicated that if funding cannot be found, valuable historical materials may soon be removed from the NARA facility at San Bruno, California. The consequences of the removal of these primary source materials are uncertain, but SONA is concerned that access to these items may become much more difficult or even impossible if the articles are damaged, destroyed, lost, or never returned during their removal and processing at another facility.
The items in question are called the Alien Registration Files (A-files). Under the Alien Registration Act of 1940, all aliens in the United States were required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now know as the USCIS). The A-files are the detailed evidentiary records collected for each of these registered individuals. The contents within these files may include photographs, birth certificates, visas, records of employment, family-related documents, transcripts of testimony, personal artifacts, and other important biographical and historical information.
Although the A-files were first started in the 1940s, some of the A-files contain much older information collected by the various immigration offices. Immigration records that are currently available for public research and viewing at NARA, San Bruno (known as Record Group 85 case files) go as far back as the late 1800s. Non-citizen US residents that had dealings with the federal government after 1940, such as people that traveled out of the US and back, might have had their older immigration records brought forwards and consolidated into the newer A-files. Since A-files are still under the authority of USCIS, they are not viewable without a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. As a result many files that could have been included with the originally group 85 case files are still essentially inaccessible.
In 1998, USCIS began consolidating all of its A-files at a non-research accommodating NARA facility in Lee's Summit, Missouri. At that time a group of researchers, educational institutions, history and genealogical organizations, non-profit organizations, and individuals got together to form SONA. Their goal has been to make sure that the non-current A-files are transferred from the authority of USCIS to NARA so that they could be preserved and made accessible to the public. For the past 10 years SONA, Congressman Tom Lantos, and others were able to prevent the A-files stored at San Bruno from being moved to Lee's Summit.
The A-files stored at San Bruno are from the INS offices in the Pacific Region (San Francisco, Honolulu, and Reno Nevada). These A-files not only include records of Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion period, but also include records of such people as German, Italian, and Japanese WWII alien internees; Holocaust survivors; Filipino Freedom Fighters; WWII war brides; immigrants from many Asian countries and more.
A further note - government documents are not automatically preserved. When a government agency such as USCIS retires its older documents, NARA must evaluate these records for their historical value before they can be considered for inclusion in NARA's permanent collection. Approximately 98% of all the records produce by our national government are not preserved by NARA and the A-files were among those originally designated for destruction.
NARA and USCIS are now in agreement with SONA that the A-files should be preserved. However, the plans on how and where they are to be stored continues to evolve.
After years of negotiations and organizing, a meeting with the USCIS director, and a detailed letter of SONA demands, a June 2007 USCIS reply letter to SONA stated -
"USCIS continues to work closely with NARA to develop a comprehensive plan to address the accountability and accessioning of the historically important files located at the San Bruno facility...
USCIS agrees that no files will be removed from the facility in order to be inventoried and that these files will be handled in a manner that will not compromise their historical value. NARA and USCIS are committed to the A-File inventory. We will continue to collaborate with the user community on the progress of these efforts and look forward to working with you and other interested parties."
However, in an August 2008 email to SONA from Tom Mills of NARA, Mills states that -
"USCIS has halted plans for the joint A-files processing project at the San Bruno FRC (Federal Records Center), and NARA does not yet know how and when USCIS plans to process the records to prepare them for accessioning."
Jeanie Low, the Communications Co-Chair of SONA, states that shortly after the email from Tom Mills was received, she had a phone conversation with USCIS's records manager Dominick Gentile. In their conversation Gentile said that USCIS has no funding to process the A-Files at San Bruno and that even with funding it would take 10 years and approximately $5 million for six trained staffers to process the files at San Bruno. He further stated that the facility at Lee's Summit had the funding and staff to process the files in less than two years and implied that USCIS's Acting Director Jonathan Scharfen preferred the processing of the files at Lee's Summit. In this conversation, no promises were made to have the files returned to San Bruno after they were processed at Lee's Summit.
After further communications with Gentile, he stated in his latest email that "we are still looking at doing the files in San Bruno. We are waiting for cost estimates from NARA based on new requirements from us."
Jennie Lew, SONA's other Communication Co-Chair, states that
"Regardless of the mixed messages we are getting from agency folk, we can no longer rely on occasional phone and email messages that seem contradictory. It's been over a year and a half, and nothing has been agreed upon much less acted on...
Their credibility with our community is now non-existent. You can imagine how our community feels to first be victimized by immigration policy and now have our immigration history so disrespectfully compromised because the government can't find $5 million or whatever to database and consolidate the files. Are our contributions to this country and our devotion to our genealogical history worth so little to be treated this way?"
SONA is organizing a writing campaign to USCIS and NARA heads, and congressional representatives to seek an immediate halt to any movement of the A-files from San Bruno until the next administration in 2009 can take further, more agreeable action.
For further information, you can write to Jeanie Low at PO Box 472012, San Francisco, CA or correspond with AACP's staff to get in touch with Jeanie Low or Jennie Lew.