Social Security benefits
Long-term railroad workers were covered separately under the Railroad Retirement Board, though they did receive Social Security numbers and about 430,000 of them are included in the SSDI. Prior to June 1963, railroad employees were assigned special Social Security numbers, beginning with digits between 700 and 728. The board will search for genealogical information in its files for a $27 nonrefundable fee; write:
844 N. Rush St.
Chicago, IL 60611
Even if you can’t find an ancestor in the SSDI and don’t know the Social Security number, you still can request a copy of his or her Social Security Number Application (SS-5), if there is one. You can complete the process and pay by credit card online (go to <www.socialsecurity.gov/foia/html/foia_guide.htm#RecordsandFees> and click SSA-711. Or you can mail your request as a letter or on form SSA-711 (PDF download) to:
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Greene St.
Baltimore, MD 21290
Five kinds of records are available through the USCIS genealogy program, each potentially rich with family history:
- Naturalization certificate files (C-Files) dating Sept. 27, 1906, to March 31, 1956: Prior to the 1906 Naturalization Act, the process of becoming a citizen—along with the resulting paperwork—was the domain of courts, mostly local ones. After Sept. 27, 1906, copies of all US naturalization records were filed in Washington, DC. Many of these C-Files contain documents such as correspondence, affidavits or other records, and many from 1929 on include photos.
- Alien registration forms (Form AR-2), dating August 1940 to March 31, 1944: The Smith Act, passed amid rising concerns about US entry into World War II, required non-citizens in the United States age 14 or older to register as aliens. Some 5.5 million resident or arriving aliens—many who subsequently became naturalized citizens—completed Form AR-2. The two-page form was practically a full biography: name; name at arrival; other names used; address; post office address; date and place of birth; sex; marital status; race; height; weight; hair and eye color; date, place, vessel and class of admission of last US arrival; date of first arrival; number of years in the United States; occupation; name, address and business of present employer; membership in clubs and organizations; dates and nature of military or naval service; whether citizenship papers had been filed, and if so, the date, place and court for declaration or petition; number of relatives living in the United States; arrest record, including date, place and disposition of each arrest and whether or not affiliated with a foreign government. (Whew.)
- Visa files dating July 1, 1924, to March 31, 1944: These are arrival records of immigrants admitted for permanent residence under the Immigration Act of 1924. They contain information normally found on a ship passenger list, plus the immigrant’s places of residence for five years prior to emigration, names of parents and more. Birth records or affidavits are usually attached; sometimes marriage, military or police records are, too.
- Registry files dating March 2, 1929, to March 31, 1944: When no passenger arrival record could be found for someone who’d entered the country prior to July 1, 1924, citizenship officials would set up a registry file with documents supporting the immigrant’s claims of arrival and residence. This may include proof of residence, receipts and employment records.
- Immigrant files (A-Files) dating April 1, 1944, to May 1, 1951: These alien case files became the official file for immigration records created or consolidated since April 1, 1944. Only A-File documents dated to May 1, 1951, are available under the Genealogy Program. Most A-files for immigrants born more than 100 years ago are being transferred to NARA’s Kansas City, Mo., location.
A-files for San Francisco arrivals are at that city’s NARA facility. See its website for request information. For other A-files after May 1, 1951, send to:
Lee’s Summit, MO 648010
You can request files not covered by the Genealogy Program under the FOIA. For naturalizations on or after April 1, 1956, visa files for immigrant arrivals after March 31, 1944, and Border Patrol records, write:
111 Massachusetts Ave.
Washington, DC 20529
The NPRC also houses the government’s Official Personnel Folders (OPFs), which date from the mid-1800s and cover most federal employees. Recent OPFs have little genealogical information. But if an ancestor worked for the federal
government between the 1850s and the early 20th century, you might uncover some colorful history. These older files range from accounts of Indian agents in the Old West to tales of the Lifesaving and Lighthouse Service. You probably won’t need to make an FOIA request to access them. If you can identify an individual and the agency your ancestor worked for, you can access OPFs by writing:
111 Winnebago St.
St. Louis, MO 63118
While NARA has pre-1925 records of US citizens’ passport applications and pre-1940 visa records for non-citizens to enter the country, more-recent passport and visa records are at the Department of State. You must mail your FOIA request for these records, with your original signature. Include your ancestor’s date and place of birth and as much other detail as you can, along with a copy of the death certificate or newspaper obituary. If you don’t specify a limit for the fees you’re willing to pay, a $25 limit will be assumed. Mark “Freedom of Information Act” on the envelope and address it to:
US Department of State
Washington, DC 20522
Before writing, consult the Department of State Information Access Guide/Manual.
Use your imagination when pondering what government agencies might have records about your ancestors. A few to look into:
- FBI: Even if your ancestor stayed on the right side of the law, he or she might have an FBI file. Beginning in 1908, the FBI kept files on millions of Americans, many of whom did nothing wrong except disagree with the government. You can use the FOIA to request a “main file search” for an investigative FBI file about an individual. Be sure to ask for a search of manual card records, because “security files” are computerized only back to 1958 and criminal files to 1973.
170 Marcel Drive
Winchester, VA 22602
- Federal Bureau of Prisons: If your ancestor was convicted of a federal crime, the records are open to the public. (See page 28 for more on researching criminal ancestors.) Federal prison records are at NARA’s regional offices with jurisdiction over the area where the prison was; some are indexed online. For inmates released prior to 1982, write:
Office of Communications and Archives
Attn: Historic Inmate Locator Request
320 First St. NW
Washington, DC 20534
- Department of the Interior: Another group of Americans who fell under Uncle Sam’s jurisdiction are, of course, American Indians. The Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), has a brief guide to researching Indian ancestry. Most BIA records, however, are now at NARA; see the website for a complete listing and record locations.
If your FOIA request is denied, each agency has an FOIA Appeals Office you can contact, usually within 30 to 60 days. You may appeal directly to a court only if the agency doesn’t respond within the required time period.
The federal FOIA doesn’t apply to state and local governments, although most states have their own FOIA equivalent. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has compiled a state-by-state Open Government Guide. Besides vital records, this searchable and customizable guide covers many other state sources where you might uncover your ancestors, from prison files to school records, hospital reports to gun permits.