SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney is speaking out against a proposed fee hike on family history records that could raise the price of obtaining a record by up to 500%.
The Utah Republican sent a letter Tuesday to the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, expressing concern about the proposed rule, which the agencies say will help cover budget costs.
The Genealogy Program, which is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, allows genealogists and researchers to obtain citizenship and “alien records” of immigrants who arrived in the United States between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries and have since died.
“These records allow Americans to trace their roots for a better understanding of who they are, and where they came from,” Romney said in his letter. “Any increase in the Genealogy Program’s two separate user fees should be done after careful consideration that it would not unduly burden those who rely on the records.”
There are two fees required to obtain a record from the agency: the Genealogy Index Search Request fee (which is used to decide whether the agency even has any records of the immigrant in question) and the Genealogy Records Request fee (which is used to actually obtain the record from the agency).
When the Genealogy Program began in 2008, the fees were between $20 to $35; but in 2016, the agency raised both fees to $65. Now, the proposed fee hike wants to raise the search fee 269%, from $65 to $240, and the records fee 492%, from $65 to $385.
“If this rule takes effect, a family historian would need to pay $625 to search and obtain a single file on a relative,” Romney’s letter reads.
When the fee was raised in 2016, total record requests fell by about 30%, Romney claims. That number will fall even more drastically if the proposed fee hike becomes reality, he said.
Romney appeared on KSL NewsRadio Thursday to talk about the issue, among other things, and said the news of the proposed rule “came as a real shock” to him.
“It’s unthinkable,” he said.
He believes the agency was attempting to bolster its budget by quietly raising the fees, assuming it wouldn’t hear too much public dissent.
.@DHSgov's proposed 500% fee increase on family history records obtained through @USCIS would greatly inhibit Utahns’ access to genealogy records. If you’re concerned about this rule's impact on you or your family, the public comment period closes Dec. 30: https://t.co/ciZm7ZIziM— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) December 11, 2019
He admitted that he’s been in the agency’s position before and doesn’t have completely clean hands when it comes to raising fees to find revenue in a budget. But the Utah senator believes the agency is raising fees “well beyond what they should be.”
“Government should not be making a huge profit on a service that is important to many, many people,” he said on KSL NewsRadio. “(They shouldn’t) balance their budget on the backs of people who care about genealogy and family history.”
Romney said he’s contacted the department and asked for a “complete accounting” of their costs to try and understand how they could justify the fees they proposed.
He also tweeted Wednesday, asking Utahns to let the agency know about any concerns they have about the proposed rule. The official comment page above the rule document says comments are due Dec. 30; however, the published document of the proposed rule says comments close Monday. KSL.com has reached out for clarification on the date and has not yet heard back.
Utah-based genealogy company Ancestry also released a statement, saying, “As a trusted partner to thousands of archives and government organizations, Ancestry is in ongoing conversations with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to offer our support in making their record collections more accessible through digitization.”
"Through our 20 billion historical records, including the largest collection of digitized immigration records, we help people build their family’s story and understand the experiences of the generations before them."
Contributing: Boyd Matheson, KSL