Much of our work as Immigration Attorneys involves researching our clients’ pasts. Often to figure out how I can help a client in the future, I need to know what their history looks like.
That research might include criminal records. It might include old divorce records, child support and custody, old deportations, old visa petitions or naturalization applications, and perhaps old tax records and judgments in civil court.
We always start by using the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA to obtain the client’s “A file.” I’ve written about examples of documents we’ve been able to obtain through free FOIA requests that have been very useful to our practice. But that’s often not enough.
Here are a few more tools that are available to help clients find their old records.
I. FBI Fingerprint Checks
The best place to start for a client who has ever been arrested at any time in their life is an FBI fingerprint check.
We do the fingerprints in our office and always have a stack of FBI fingerprint cards on hand. You can also download the card here. I order mine in bulk from Amazon. Once you have a full set of prints, it just takes mailing the card with a fee and a signed statement to the FBI. They generally send back a “RAP” sheet that lists our client’s arrests.
WARNING – the FBI’s records are notoriously incomplete, so just running fingerprints isn’t always enough. If my client knows he was arrested in a particular state, we will also submit fingerprint cards or search requests to that particular state. It’s also possible to do an online background search in many states, but these searches won’t turn up all of the records if our client used a different name or their name is misspelled in the system. They also might not turn up expunged records or old sealed record. The solution to these problems is a fingerprint search request.
II. Comprehensive Online Background Checks
Another way to find a person’s history is by using third party background searches performed by private companies. Fingerprint searches usually will only turn up arrest records (criminal and immigration records). But let’s say you also need your civil court history. When one of my clients knows he has a long, complicated history with the law and can’t recall exactly the number of times he’s been sued or taken to court for back taxes, a background check can be very helpful.
The two background check tools that I like the most are TLOxp for legal professionals and Westlaw’s PeopleMap. PeopleMap is cheaper if you already have WestLaw but it’s not as comprehensive. TLOxp will do a comprehensive background report including available photos, criminal records, employers, address history, professional licenses, bankruptcy records, liens, civil judgments, property deeds, evictions, vehicles, and a number of other categories. Westlaw’s PeopleMap uses the Westlaw public records database to create a less-comprehensive report.
If my clients are a married couple who have lived together at a number of addresses in the last ten years, for example, this report can be helpful for making a comprehensive list of their addresses (something it’s easy to forget over time).
These reports can also tell us where to look for original documents to prove our case. For example, if a client is applying for cancellation of removal and thus needs to prove where they’ve lived and worked for the last ten or more years, these reports can be a great starting point.
Keep in mind that these tools aren’t always going to be accurate, and employers and others can get into a lot of trouble relying on these records to make decisions. These tools should only be used as a starting place for further research.
Ancestry.com has been one of my favorite tools over time to find documents for my clients about their immigration case and history. That seems quite odd, right? It’s just a genealogy website. But in addition to being a tool for constructing family trees, Ancestry.com has an excellent searchable database of original documents.
This is usually most helpful in derivative citizenship or acquired citizenship cases.
Let’s say a hypothetical client has lived in the United States thinking they are undocumented but later learns their mother or father (or grandparent) was a U.S. citizen. Under the law at the time our client was born, that person may have received citizenship through their parent (even if they were born outside the United States). But usually these cases require proof that the Citizen parent (or grandparent in some cases) lived in the United States for a certain period of time before the client was born.
How do we prove that?
I almost always start with Ancestry.com. There I can find census data, marriage records, divorces, old phone books, military draft and enlistment records, burial and death information, immigration records, and a ton of other original documents that prove where a person was located or living years and years ago.
IV. Other Online Research Tools
I don’t use these as often, but there are a number of tools online for finding a client’s online history. Some clients have a lengthy internet history and we often want to make sure we understand everything that is available online before we file a visa petition or other relief application.
Consider an example: Client A has recently married a foreign national and wants to petition for them to come to the United States. But, before marrying the client had dating profiles on several dating website, wrote a blog about their personal history, had a MySpace or Friendster page, etc. It’s very common for folks to forget about these over time, but USCIS will look for online records when considering a visa petition. So, we will often use open source search tools to make sure we’re aware of all online records before we file.
One example is Archive.org‘s Wayback Machine. For clients who have had websites or blogs, we like to search not just for the sites and blogs themselves but also for old versions of these sites. If you visit a website today, all you’re seeing is what is written in that site’s code today. But the Web constantly changes. Google does sometimes cache the most recent version of the page, but it doesn’t save it forever.
Wayback Machine will show what previous versions of websites or blogs looked like in the past. We can’t change what is on a client’s old websites, but it might be important for us to know what is out there before we file a visa petition that will invite the USCIS to look for the same.
Other online tools allow for research of who owns a particular website. One of this is WhoIs.net.
Another incredibly useful online tool is PACER, the federal government’s online repository for federal court case information. You do have to have a PACER account, but anyone can sign up for one. Then you can search federal cases by the names of the parties or the names of the attorneys. Most of the court documents in these cases (including documents that were used as exhibits in old cases) are available to download for a per-page charge.
This should probably be a no-brainer, but we definitely use Facebook to help clients obtain old documents and research issues for their case.
Consider the availability of photos from an old relationship. Often people will take pictures and upload them to Facebook but won’t save them anywhere else. So let’s say I have a client who is filing an abuse petition and needs proof she was living in a bona fide relationship with her spouse before he became abusive. I often try to find the spouse’s Facebook page and look at his photos. And often we find old photos the client might not have even been aware of. They’re dated (which can help) and they often can help us stitch our client’s story together after-the-fact when she may not have a bunch of her documents (because she has fled or doesn’t have access).
I do not “Friend” people so I can see their profiles – that’s likely unethical and a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. But if a person’s profile is set to public, I’ll gladly look at their profiles to see if I can help my clients gather documents for their cases.
These are a few of the helpful tools we use and anyone else can use to try to find documents online to help prove their clients’ immigration cases when a basic FOIA request didn’t turn up everything we were looking for. Did I miss anything worth listing here? Let me know in the comments.