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Sen. Mitt Romney questions fee hikes that will hit family history researchers hard

The Utah senator has joined a campaign to persuade an immigration agency to reconsider fee increases of up to 500% on a trove of genealogical documents

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Hugo Ernst Geissler holds his 3-year-old son Hugo Hermann on the SS George Washington that arrived in New York harbor in 1925. The child is the father of genealogist Judy Russell, who used U.S. immigration records to piece together their journey to America. the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is proposing fee increases that could price those historical immigration records out of reach for many family history researchers.

Courtesy of Judy Russell

SALT LAKE CITY — A government program that provides a mother lode of historical immigration information for professional genealogists and family history buffs may be out of reach for many of those researchers if a dramatic proposed fee hike takes effect.

Now, Sen. Mitt Romney has joined the public campaign to persuade the immigration agency that imposes the fees to drop the proposed increase, which would boost some fees by as much as 500%.

The Utah Republican has written a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asking them to account for the fee revenue that funds the little-known Genealogy Program.

“I understand USCIS’s budget relies primarily on user fees, and the southern border crisis continues to strain the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission,” Romney wrote. “However, I am concerned that drastically raising the Genealogy Program’s fees would harm genealogists across the United States without addressing your budgetary concerns.”

Romney’s office has also encouraged family history enthusiasts through social media channels to let the agency know their concerns during a public comment period on the proposed fees that ends Dec. 30.

Those impacted most by the fee increase would be genealogists, family historians and others who need citizenship and alien registration files, visa applications and other records documenting the lives of deceased immigrants who arrived in the United States between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries, according to The Washington Post.

“The waves of western and southern Europeans who came through Ellis Island at the turn of the century are included in the records, as are Jews who sought refuge from Nazi Germany before World War II and Mexican guest farmworkers who helped stem the labor shortage during the conflict,” the Post reported. “They were followed by Holocaust survivors and those fleeing communist rule in Central Europe and the Soviet Union.”

Among those affected would be Judy Russell, a respected genealogist educator and blogger, whose father immigrated from Germany in 1925. “So I rely on USCIS records to explain his journey to the United States, my grandparents’ journey to the United States and a whole host of aunts, uncles and cousins,” she said.

Russell, who describes herself as a genealogist with a law degree and goes by the sobriquet “the legal genealogist,” explained that one of the most valuable immigration records is the alien registration, or AR-2. It lists a treasure trove of personal data, such as birth dates and places, dates of entry into the United States and organizations a person belonged to, in a single two- to three-page document.

That document currently costs $130 to search and copy. Under the proposed fee hikes it would cost $240 because it is digitized. Paper documents would cost $625 under the proposal.

She said what’s “unconscionable” about the proposed changes is that most of these records will eventually end up in the National Archives, which are generally free to access. But current agency restrictions on the alien registration records held by the National Archives require that they be accessed through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at their normal rates.

“If this change goes through, it really puts these records out of the reach of the average American,” she said.

Those average Americans who dabble in family history now number in the millions as the internet has popularized genealogy through web-based providers like Utah-based Ancestry, which provides documents and DNA data to more than 3 million paying subscribers.

“As a trusted partner to thousands of archives and government organizations, Ancestry is in ongoing conversations with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to offer our support in making their record collections more accessible through digitization,” the company said in a statement in response to the proposed fee hikes.

Another cohort of hobbyists would be the thousands of people who visit or access via personal computer The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake, the world’s largest family history archive of its kind.

The church, which embraces family history as a religious pursuit with eternal meaning, had no comment on the proposed fee hike.

But genealogists and others have started campaigns to let the government know how they feel about the change.

Mormon Women for Ethical Government has encouraged each of its members to invite three others to also submit their views on the agency’s across-the-board fee increases for historical and current immigration documents. “This is how we make our voices heard as citizens in this great country! Act now. We will not be complicit by being complacent,” the group’s website said.

Rich Venezia, a Pittsburgh-based professional genealogist and an expert on USCIS records who is leading a public campaign against the fee hikes, said fees for some records tripled in 2016 under the program, but agency offered a rationale for that increase.

“What changed since 2016 to warrant such significant increases?” he asked.

Romney has similar questions.

HIs letter notes when the fees were raised in 2016 from $20 to $65, total requests for documents dropped 30%, suggesting fee hikes can defeat the purpose of raising revenue.

Current fees for copies of records are $65 for an index search, plus $65 to receive a copy of the record. The proposal would boost the fee for search and digitized records to $240, plus $385 if the record is available in paper only, totaling.

“The proposed rule’s prohibitive fees could make it nearly impossible for an average person to access the Genealogy Program, leading to fewer requests and ultimately mitigating the proposed rule’s intention to fund the USCIS,” Romney said.

He’s asking the agency to provide to him by Dec. 18, annual fee revenue collected by the Genealogy Program in 2015-2018, the program’s budgets and expenses from 2015-2019, and whether fee revenue is used to support functions other than the Genealogy Program.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not respond to phone and email messages for comment. But it told the Post: “USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis.”

A date has not been set for the new fees to take effect.