These caves under Kansas City are making it harder for people to become U.S. citizens

·2 min read

Kansas City’s elaborate network of man made caves made the national news on Monday, Jan. 24 for the vital government records that some of them hold. Physical media from film and photographs to billions of paper documents are stored in Federal Records Centers, or FRCs, around the metro area.

While these government record centers are never open to the public, the pandemic has restricted them even further, reducing staff and barring many government workers from entry. That’s causing problems for prospective citizens, whose application documents are now locked underground.

“This situation has turned into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic immigration nightmare, and the applicants deserve better,” immigration attorney Susan Cohen told the Wall Street Journal.

Wait, there are limestone caves under Kansas City?

Kansas City’s caves are a topic of pride for locals and fascination for newcomers to the area. Built in abandoned mines, these caves house a variety of businesses, storage facilities and other attractions.

The federal government has been storing paperwork in these caves for nearly 25 years. Its first FRC opened in 1997 beneath Lee’s Summit, and another opened in 2003 under Lenexa. The largest FRC, however, is in the massive cave complex known as SubTropolis, located in the foothills near Randolph, just north of the Missouri River.

SubTropolis is touted as “The world’s largest underground business complex” by its landlord, real estate developers Hunt Midwest. In addition to the FRC, its tenants include a paintball course, RV storage and office buildings alongside pharmaceutical and food manufacturing plants. The U.S. Postal Service even runs a distribution center for postage stamps in the complex.

Why are government records kept in these caves?

Limestone caves in former mine sites actually provide ideal conditions for storing paper documents and other materials like film reels and photographs. The caves’ naturally cool and dry conditions decrease the costs of climate control, and their location deep underground offers natural protection from even the most severe weather. Space in these caves, many of which have ceilings 17 feet tall or higher, is also cheap and plentiful.

But the enclosed conditions of the underground FRCs have posed a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Archives and Records Administration has called its Kansas City facility “an area of high transmission,” cutting staff by as much as 75%.

Pandemic restrictions have made physical documents nearly impossible to access, creating a backlog of immigration and other cases over the past two years. It’s a problem that critics say could be solved by digitizing government records. Until that happens, billions of documents will remain housed in the cool, white limestone vaults deep beneath the city.

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