updated 3/18/2010 8:37:49 PM ET 2010-03-19T00:37:49

A U.S. immigration agency wants to charge at least $111,930 to say what's inside one of its databases about citizenship applications.

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The research group that got the bill is protesting.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notified the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse on March 4 about its charges for fulfilling the watchdog group's Freedom of Information Act request. The agency also told TRAC that it must come up with a deposit of $55,965 within 30 days for the agency to even consider moving forward on the FOIA request.

The law is designed to make government information available to the public either free or without prohibitive costs so they can hold public officials accountable for their actions.

TRAC officials said they routinely get similar types of information from other government agencies for free. "We cannot recall ever being asked to pay a fee since producing a copy of the list of data items is typically such a simple matter," they said in a letter to the agency.

Protest letter
TRAC sent a protest letter to the agency this week, which is the sixth Sunshine Week, an annual observance when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information. The immigration agency did not have an immediate response when asked about the protest.

TRAC is a private research group, based at Syracuse University, that publishes and analyzes federal data, primarily on law enforcement topics.

The immigration agency says the bill is based on a charge of $130.00 an hour for an estimated 861 hours of work to retrieve the information. And the agency warned that the final bill could go higher.

The watchdog group wants an electronic copy of what is usually called a database "table schema," which tells what kind of information is within the database. They want this information from the USCIS's CLAIMS4 database, which tracks applications and adjudications for naturalization by the agency.

"We didn't ask for the information," TRAC co-director David Burnham said. "We just asked for this plan."

Burnham and co-director Susan B. Long are protesting the bill. They say the information they want is usually easily found within the agency since most people who use the database "need this basic reference."

"We believe that under the law the issuance of this bill was both improper and premature," TRAC's letter said.

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