By: John Nicholas Mandalakas*
In a recent court case a federal judge ruled against the USCIS, finding the agency in violation of requirements under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The case was based on a dispute that lasted almost ten years.
Mirsad Hajro, who was the primary plaintiff of the case, was denied naturalization in 2007 based on alleged documentation that he had provided false testimony. Presumably, such documentation existed in his alien registration file. Requesting a FOIA, Hajro hoped to receive this information, but when it arrived over a year later, there was no such evidence to be found.
USCIS stated that they had information proving he had given false and inconsistent reports of his military service. USCIS claimed that, at his adjustment of status interview, Hajro stated that he had no foreign military service. In actuality though, it seems this was a misinterpretation by the agency. In 2008, USCIS admitted they had no notes on this testimony, almost a year after the requested FOIA. This simple mistake resulted in a lengthy legal process.
While Hajro was eventually able to receive citizenship, the process was significantly and unnecessarily prolonged by USCIS. So after winning in 2011, Hajro teamed up with James Maycock to sue USCIS for the procedural mistakes that had delayed his case. Maycock, who is an immigration lawyer, had sued the INS over violations of FOIA in 1992. The former case was settled out of court but Maycock claimed that FOIA violations had continued.
Their case alleged that USCIS violated FOIA requirement by delaying receipt of documents, and requested compensation for legal fees during the longstanding case. The 1967 Freedom of Information Act, originally mandated that information be returned to the requester within 10 days, but was later extended to 20. However this FOIA mandate is often ignored, and in the case of Mirsad Hajro, the FOIA was not acquired for years.
In the end, based on violations of the timeliness in response to FOIA requests, Federal Judge Paul S. Grewal found in favor of the plaintiffs. The case has awarded Hajro and Maycock with recompense for attorneys’ fees, to the tune of some $320,000.
This landmark case tells us a lot about USCIS process, and the bureaucratic backlog that is impeding the American immigration process. What started out as a misinterpretation – something there is no shortage of when an agency is meant to deal with both language and cultural barriers – ended up costing tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars and wasting time for both sides.
FOIA requests are a significant aspect in the practice of immigration law. When they cannot be provided as legally mandated, it hampers the process and greatly impedes effective handling of immigration cases. What this case highlights is extremely significant. While most people realize that the system is broken, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Cases like this let us see how deep underwater we really are. Governmental institutions cannot even follow the laws set by our own government. So how can we have any confidence at all in their efficacy?
*John Nicholas Mandalakas is an Intern at Beach-Oswald Immigration Law Associates, P.C.