I was rummaging through a closet that badly needed to be cleaned last week when I came across my late mother’s U.S. naturalization certificate, issued when she took the oath in Mineola, Long Island at the Supreme Court of Nassau County on May 18, 1962.
Margaret Teresa Ryan, originally from Rathmore, Co. Kerry, wasn’t yet married to James McGoldrick – that would come a couple of years later – and I often remember her telling me about the day she became a U.S. citizen. She wasn’t particularly well versed on U.S. history, but her inquisitor, a friend of a friend of a friend, wasn’t bothered. He welcomed her to America with open arms, and the rest is history.
It’s funny how I was reminded of that story last week, just at the same time as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (UCSIS) announced that it has begun the process of archiving old alien records that will eventually become part of the U.S. National Archives.
USCIS has just commenced the process of archiving 135,000 records of people born before 1909, and who arrived in the U.S. after 1900. It’s a small number in the larger context of how many have come to the U.S. throughout the years, but a start must be made somewhere. These so-called “A-files,” and all the personal information they contain, should be available for viewing starting next summer.
“Immigration is one of the most significant aspects of the American experience,” said Gregory Smith, associate director of USCIS.
“ The information contained in the A-file is unique. No other type of case file contains the same level of comprehensive personal data…especially concerning the alien’s interaction with USCIS and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, and their request for resident status and/or citizenship. This ensures that the records contained within the A-file will be retained forever in our National Archives, preserving a rich and important part of America’s immigration history.”
It’s fortunate that this process is getting underway. A-files used to be considered temporary records, and USCIS could have destroyed them 75 years after a file was last acted upon. Now, however, all the files will be preserved for good, which is undoubtedly a dream come true for modern day and future genealogists.
"The files are incredibly rich," Cynthia Fox, a deputy director at the National Archives, told the Los Angeles Times. "These will allow people to trace back to place of birth where their family actually originated … This will be their whole story, not just a piece of their story."
Each individual A-file is chock full of unique information about a particular immigrant, and the person’s dealings with the U.S. government at the time in an effort to become a citizen. The files contain demographic information, photos, birth and marriage certificates, and even interview transcripts.
“Currently, USCIS maintains approximately 53 million A-files; of these, about 21 million have been retired to a Federal Records Center,” said the agency in a release.
“Newly-eligible files will be transferred to the National Archives every five years. After transfer to the National Archives, the majority of files will be housed at the National Archives in Kansas City. Files on immigration through the port of San Francisco will be housed at the National Archives in San Francisco.
“Once these records have been transferred, they will be available in the research rooms at these two National Archives facilities. Copies will also be available through the mail.”
There are a good number of old records available now through the USCIS’s existing genealogy program. Visit www.uscis.gov to find out how to access them.