The A-files: Records center in area mines holds history of immigrants

About 20 million files on immigrants are stored inside a Lee’s Summit mine.
About 20 million files on immigrants are stored inside a Lee’s Summit mine.

John Lennon, Elizabeth Taylor, Salvador Dali, David Niven ... all have a Kansas City area connection. What could link a famous musician, actors and a surrealist artist to this town?

It’s their immigration records.

All are stored underground at the National Records Center, part of the Department of Homeland Security, at the Space Center Inc. location in northern Lee’s Summit.

The facility last week celebrated its 15th year of operations, offering a rare glimpse of its secured interior to dignitaries invited to take tours.

What they could see were acres and acres of tall shelves, towering over their heads, stuffed with paper files known as A-files, for alien files.

The federal government started keeping those particular files in the early 1940s, and every immigrant who comes into the U.S. through official channels has one.

They’ll contain birth certificates, marriage licenses, applications for work permits, arrests, photographs – even wedding albums – all kinds of information, nearly all of it paper. They document the life of an immigrant living in the U.S.

“They’re considered a cultural resource by many,” said Terry Sloan, acting director of the records center. “It’s unlikely they’ll ever be destroyed.”

Sloan said oddities sometimes end up in the files, either by accident or because field agents don’t know what else to do with them. They’ve found knives, jewelry, a dead gecko and other stuff.

The center opened in 1999 with about 50 employees. Now there are 500, combining federal and contract workers. The underground facility has an area of nearly six football fields, at 330,000 square feet. It’s so full of records that the department is procuring more space.

There’s a constant flow of records from and to field offices.

The records center has an office open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make information available as needed by law enforcement and customs agents, Sloan said.

The files are available to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Customs and Border Protection agencies, and to the FBI.

The department closes only for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Sloan said, but employees are on call.

The National Records Center stores about 20 million inactive records transferred from field offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Eventually old, inactive files are transferred to a similar facility in the mines run by the National Archives and Records Administration, which now has about another 20 million files. In the archives, those A-files become public after they reach 100 years old, Sloan said.

Sloan said that some immigration forms now being collected are digital, and the center converts portions of A-files to digital to be sent to agencies that need only part of the information.

Many of the immigration forms are still being produced on paper, Sloan said, and they’ll probably stay paper, because of the huge cost to digitize all of it. But it’s also expensive to maintain the paper database, she noted.

At the facility there also is a department that can help people with genealogy, while another handles Freedom of Information Act requests, from people who want to get copies of their files.

The files arrive on pallets by the truckload, are processed with bar codes and stored on shelves. The scanned codes for each file are logged into a computer with its location in the stacks, so it can be retrieved if needed. Files are not in alphabetical or numerical order.

A new file can arrive being about one-sixteenth of an inch thick, but over its lifetime – as the person moves and makes other life changes – it can grow several inches, Sloan said.

The immigration services have about 55 million A-files and create another 1.2 million annually. Agencies use the information when they get applications for changing immigrant status or for benefits.

Invited for the tours Wednesday were U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Lee’s Summit Mayor Randy Rhoads, Maria Antonia, a Cuban immigrant who was a local television reporter and news anchor, and lawyer Asad Yasir.

Yasir is a naturalized citizen, Iraqi born, who came to the U.S. after serving as an interpreter for American troops following the invasion of Iraq. He was forced to leave Iraq because insurgents put him on a kill list and he was injured in an attack.

Antonia and Yasir shared some of their thoughts as immigrants.

The Lee’s Summit North High School ROTC color guard presented the flags.

Cleaver. a member of the House’s Homeland Security Committee, said that the computer hacking of the White House on Tuesday brings home the importance of the work done at the facility.

“You are the gatekeepers of valuable and vital information this nation holds,” Cleaver said.