Update 2/8/2011 – see the follow-up to this post for more info!
Sometimes waiting to receive copies of records is worth the wait. But sometimes it’s not. Such was my adventure with USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. As I wrote in The Waiting Game in September, I requested a copy of my great-grandfather’s naturalization info. I did this despite the fact that I already knew his naturalization date and had a copy of the papers. But I was curious if there was anything else in the “file”. I had two goals in mind. First, I wanted to see if there was a photograph. Many naturalization records contain photos, but my great-grandfather’s did not. Did I have the complete package? Since I only have one photo of him, it was worth finding out. Next, I had a mysterious addendum to his naturalization that I received from another agency – would the USCIS file contain it?
Let me start at the beginning. Early on in my research, circa 1989-91, I found the naturalization papers for my great-grandfather, Louis Pater, at the Philadelphia City Archives. He was naturalized in 1925 at the local level in the Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court. These local naturalizations were not available at the National Archives (and still aren’t, nor are they available online). The City Archives had a file of index cards, and the archives’ personnel would photocopy the Declaration of Intent and the Petition for Naturalization for any name you found.
For reasons I can’t quite recall, in late 1992 I submitted a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the Department of Justice, where the naturalization information was then held. Perhaps I was looking for that elusive photo. I didn’t get a photo then, either, but I got the previously received declaration and petition. The difference was that this time, the birth dates of Louis’ children listed on the petition were blocked out for “privacy” concerns as the data was considered “personal”. In addition to these two documents, they sent me a comical series of papers that was supposed to be Louis’ passenger arrival record…only every line on the manifest was blocked out. This included his sister and brother-in-law’s lines above his. If you are familiar with passenger arrival records, you know that if a family is traveling together, the persons listed underneath the first person usually get ditto marks for the repeated info. Without the first family member, Louis’ passenger arrival record was a bunch of ditto marks.
I should point out that in 1992 when I received this, all five of his “children” were deceased anywhere from 20 to 50 years. In fact, some of their birth dates were publicly available in the Social Security Death Index, one of the few sources of online information back then. And, even though the Ellis Island web site was not yet operational (nor was Ancestry), the passenger list was fully available via the National Archives.
But I digress… The DoJ file contained one additional piece of information – a barely legible typewritten letter from 1940. It seemed to indicate that my great-grandfather committed a crime and was sentenced to two to four years in prison. I can’t quite read the entire letter, but it was apparently meant to let the naturalization service know that they may have give citizenship to an unsavory character. I assume that if he had committed further crimes, they would have deported him.
It was my inability to read this letter that led me to try the USCIS search. After all, they talk about receiving a “file” so I didn’t know what other information might be included.
First I paid for an index search, which was unfortunate since it turned out that the “index number” was his naturalization number, which I already had. But they don’t really tell you that and make it seem that the index search must precede the file search. The index number cost $20 and took five months to receive.
Once I received the number, I submitted a Record Copy Request for $20. Two months later, I received the “file”. I received the Declaration of Intent, the Petition for Naturalization (shrunk to 8.5” x 11” or half the size of the original document), and his certificate. The children’s birthdays were also blacked out on the Petition. I had also received the certificate from the DoJ, but this copy was easier to read. No photo. No mysterious letter about his arrest.
With the above, I also received an amusing letter explaining that they “completed the review of all documents and have identified 3 pages that are We have reviewed and have determined to release all information except those portions that are exempt.” I’m an employee of the U.S. Government, too, and we actually use spell-check and grammar-check.
The letter goes on to say that “certain pages contain marks that appear to be blacked-out information. The black marks were made prior to our receipt of the file.” Which makes me wonder…where did they get the files from? And where are the originals? Apparently, the City Archives has unmarked copies, but the federal agencies do not. Do the originals exist? If the new USCIS agency (part of the Department of Homeland Security) does not have the file that the Department of Justice had, where did those files go?
I end my quest seven months later and $40 short. My great-grandfather didn’t need a photo for his naturalization, and I received no additional information. Are you looking for your ancestor’s naturalization? If I were you, I’d stick to either online resources like Ancestry or Footnote. Or, it pays to find out if there are naturalizations at the local level. In my case, 2 of my 3 great-grandfathers were naturalized in the Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court. These records are kept at the City Archives. There is an index, but it is not online. In fact, it’s not even computerized on site – at least not twenty years ago when I was there. It pays to review the courts used in your area and looking at the federal courts that have been indexed.
USCIS may still be worth it to some researchers, however, because in addition to naturalization records they also hold alien registration files and visas. Even if your ancestor was not naturalized, alien immigrants were required to register with the Government in the early 1940’s. I still may pursue this for some of my non-naturalized relatives.
As for my hard-to-read letter detailing the alleged incarceration of my great-grandfather, I never would have known about it if I hadn’t tried the FOIA request years ago. But where those files are now is anyone’s guess. Since scanning has improved in the last two decades, I will try to scan the photocopy and see if I can sharpen the faded text to uncover the next part of this mystery.
For more information on Naturalization Records: