History and Genealogy
April 24, 2013
The vast collection of historical Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) subject, policy and correspondence files now stored as Entry 9 of Record Group 85 at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. includes thousands of files related to all aspects of immigration policy during the years 1906-1956.
Up to half of these files relate to specific individuals, making them a potential goldmine of information for family historians interested in documenting their ancestors or scholars whose research involves particular immigrants, employees of the INS, or any other person who may have come into contact with the agency during the first half of the 20th century.
Because there is no publically available name index for Entry 9, searching for files related to a specific individual can be difficult. But it is not impossible. The following tips will help you get started:
1. Search ancestry.com’s digitized version of the Subject Index
If you have access to the commercial site ancestry.com, start by searching that site’s digitized version of the Subject Index to INS Correspondence and Case Files. Though the original index is arranged by subject, ancestry.com has digitized it and made it name searchable. Note that the Subject Index is not a comprehensive name index for Entry 9 files. A name that does not appear in the Subject Index may appear in the INS Master Index.
2. Search the Microfilmed Subject Index
If you are near a National Archives facility or LDS Family History Center you may be able to request a copy of the microfilmed version of the Subject Index to INS Correspondence and Case Files.[i] Because the index is arranged by subject, however, it is nearly impossible to locate a file using just a name. You will only be able to use this option if you know the approximate date and cause of the action that generated the file.
Common strategies for finding files in the microfilm index include:
- Reels 28-30 of the index contain a list of “vessels by name.”This list includes the names of many immigrants who appealed Board of Special Inquiry (BSI) hearing decisions. If you believe your immigrant appealed a BSI hearing looking up his/her ship by name and date of arrival may provide a file reference. Note that only files for appealed cases still exist and that the vast majority of cases were not appealed. Names not listed under “vessels by name” may be included in the INS Master Index.
- Less often, an immigrant’s name may be found under the cause of the action that created the file.For example, under the subject heading for “Illiterates” there are dozens of entries for immigrants held for special inquiry due to questions about their ability to read. But in other cases the subject headings include very few names. For example, the heading “Likely to Become a Public Charge” has only a small number of name entries though it was the most common cause for exclusion. Note that names not listed under a subject may be listed in the INS Master Index.
- Individuals who came into contact with the INS as employees, vendors, contractors, or for other reasons may be found under a subject heading describing their relationship to the agency.For example, under the heading “Interpreters” you will find the names of many individuals who served as INS interpreters. Because the index is organized by subject, however, not all interpreters will be listed by name.
3. Make an Index Search Request with the USCIS Genealogy Program.
If you’ve tried the above suggestions without success and have reason to believe that INS created a case or correspondence file related to the individual you are researching you may consider filing an Index Search Request with the USICS Genealogy Program. USCIS maintains the INS Master Index, a name index that includes cards referencing the files that today make up Entry 9 of RG 85 at the National Archives.
A USCIS Index Search should return file citations for any immigrant who had a BSI decision appealed to Washington, D.C. between 1893 and 1944 or anyone who was the subject of a warrant for deportation between 1903 and 1950. The Index Search may return file citations even for individuals who do not appear in the Subject Index to INS Correspondence and Case Files.
Common Questions about the Master Index
- Why are some people who appear in the Master Index not listed in the Subject Index?
The Master Index is a true name index. INS officials searched it by name (or a Soundex code based upon a name) to find files related to individual immigrants. To be effective every name needed to be included.
The Subject Index was meant to allow INS officials to locate files related to a particular topic. While some entries in the Subject Index could include names, the names themselves were not necessary to locate, files related to a particular subject (e.g., “Orphans).”
In practice, this meant that the Subject Index could include a single heading referring to 15 “Orphans,” while the Master Index would include an individual name listing for each of the 15 orphans. Today we would be able to find each of them by name in Master Index, but the Subject Index would include none of the names.
- Why isn’t the Master Index available online? Federal law requires that USCIS restrict access to its records and indices for both law enforcement and privacy purposes. In addition to cards related to Entry 9 files now available to the public in the National Archives, the Master Index includes references to many other file types, many of which are still in USCIS custody. While the index is described as “historical,” it includes information as recent as 1975. Open access to personal information about living persons would constitute a clear violation of the Privacy Act.
A card for the subject “Orphans” in the Subject Index to INS Correspondence
and Case Filestends to include the names of those seeking to adopt rather
than the name of the individual orphan. Researchers should search all names
or topics surrounding the immigrant.
[i]National Archives microfilm publication T-458; LDS reference: FHL US/CAN Film 1527605 through 1527635.