The Obama Administration’s commitment to openness is failing the trickle-down test, at least in the eyes of one organization. The Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which provides regular analysis of government data on immigration courts and federal prosecutions among other areas, filed a protest with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services today because, after waiting four years for a response to its FOIA request for information about one of the agency’s databases, the agency recently said TRAC first must pay $111,930.
The information that TRAC requested under the Freedom of Information Act concerns the agency's processing of requests for naturalization. TRAC sought an electronic copy of what usually is called a database "table schema," in this case a list of the separate fields existing within the agency’s CLAIMS4 database. The FOIA request had been pending without a response for 1,316 days.
The fee demand was particularly galling because TRAC repeatedly had reached out to the agency in the last four years to offer assistance or to narrow its FOIA request, said co-directors Susan Long and David Burnham in a press statement.
In a letter to TRAC this month, agency FOIA director T. Diane Cejka said that the fee equates to an estimated 861 man-hours at a cost of $130 per hour. The agency gave TRAC 30 days to deposit half of the fee before it would begin processing the FOIA request.
“We can not nor are we required to review the documents/information informing you of what you will receive before the fee agreement is in place,” wrote Cejka.
“We routinely seek identical information from other agencies about their databases,” Long and Burnham said in their protest to Cejka. “We routinely receive this kind of documentation from them. We cannot recall ever being asked to pay a fee since producing a copy of a list of the data items is typically such a simple matter. Even for a large database containing thousands of separate fields of information the basic listing would usually be less than 100 pages.”
The two directors said the agency offered no basis for why it would take 861 man-hours (a full-time person working 40 hours per week for five months) to complete what they called “such a simple task.” They also said the agency had failed to follow the law’s limits on hourly rates, failed to act on their request to be classified as an educational institution or news media representative, and failed to act on TRAC’s original request for a full waiver of fees.
They have asked the agency to reconsider and withdraw the fee demand.
TRAC has used the FOIA for more than 20 years to obtain hundreds of thousands of very detailed records from agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the Office of Personnel Management, and the IRS. This information is then checked for accuracy and completeness, analyzed and the results posted on its free public web site. The data is then added to TRAC's data warehouse, and access provided via the web to allow others to mine the information.