By Maria Sudekum Fisher
Kansas City – Millions of files containing detailed information about U.S. immigrants – including their spouses’ names, as well as personal photographs and letters – will soon become available to the public through a federal facility in suburban Kansas City.
Preservationists had been worried that the documents providing an important picture of immigration after 1944 would be lost because the federal government considered them temporary and could have destroyed them after 75 years.
But a deal signed this month between the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the National Archives and Records Administration preserves all 53 million files. About 21 million will be sent to the National Archives and made available in batches to genealogists, families and others.
“It’s a big deal because basically at this point they could have just incinerated them all,” said Jennie Lew, a spokeswoman for Save Our National Archives, a San Francisco-based group that worked to preserve the files. “And these give a fuller picture of those that were allowed to immigrate later in American history.” The U.S. has been “very good at preserving the records of the Puritans and western Europeans … but you’d miss the whole history of those” who came to the U.S. later if the A-files weren’t kept, she said.
Some files contain items such as Chinese wedding scrolls or the locations of family homes, said Jeanie Low, another SONA spokeswoman. “We’re not just talking about European immigrants. We’re talking about Africans, war brides, southeast Asians, every political struggle you have had,” she said. “All we have before these files was immigrants coming through Ellis Island, and that is not representative of the U.S. anymore.”
The first batch of about 135,000 files is expected to be available to the public this fall at National Archives’ storage facility in Lee’s Summit. People also can ask the archive to mail them copies of records.
Immigrants will continue to be able to get copies of their own files under the Freedom of Information Act.
The files will not be open to others, however, until 100 years after an immigrant’s birth.
Lists of documents contained in A-files had been previously available to the public with a FOIA request. But the files themselves were not open for viewing or copying.
© 2009 The Associated Press.