Washington Post: “A decade into a project to digitize U.S. immigration forms, just 1 is online”

by Joseph McKeown

After a decade and $1 billion, a project to digitize US immigration forms and the application process by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has resulted in only one electronic form. The digitization project was originally supposed to cost $500 million and be completed in 2013. The total cost is now estimated at $3.1 billion and isn’t scheduled to be completed for another four years.

What Went Wrong?

The digitization was mismanaged from the beginning, records and interviews show. Notably, officials did not “complete the basic plans for the computer system until nearly three years after the initial $500 million contract had been awarded to IBM, and the approach to adopting the technology was outdated before work on it began.” Although in 2012, officials of DHS and USCIS were well aware the project had hundreds of software defects, the agency nevertheless chose to begin the rollout, in part reportedly because of pressure from Obama administration officials who thought the project was vital as part of the proposed comprehensive immigration reform.

In the end, only three of USCIS’s forms out of nearly a hundred were digitized and available on the electronic immigration system known as ELIS, a homage to the iconic island that housed the first federal immigration processing center. Two of these forms were consequently taken offline after the software and hardware had to be discarded. One of the digitized forms, Form I-526, Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, for EB-5 immigrant investors, was only reportedly used by eighty applicants, DHS officials said, and was met with many complaints. More than 10,000 other immigrant investor applicants opted for paper-based applications.

The sole form that is now available for electronic filing is the I-90, which can be filed to renew or replace Green Cards (i.e. permanent resident cards). According to a June report from the USCIS ombudsman, however, in nearly 200 I-90 cases filed through the electronic system, applicants did not receive their cards or had to wait up to a year, despite multiple requests.  

“You’re going on 11 years into this project, they only have one form, and we’re still a paper-based agency,’’ Kenneth Palinkas, former president of the union that represents employees at the immigration agency, said in the Washington Post. “It’s a huge albatross around our necks.’’

A Fresh Start

At one point, 500 IBM engineers were working on the project with IBM initially using an outdated programming approach. While DHS officials acknowledge the setbacks they say they are on their way to automating the immigration service, which processes about 8 million applications per year. 

“In 2012, we made some hard decisions to turn the Transformation Program around using the latest industry best practices and approaches, instead of simply scratching it and starting over,’’ Shin Inouye, a spokesman for USCIS, told the Washington Post. “We took a fresh start—a fix that required an overhaul of the development process—from contracting to development methodology to technology.”

“Since making these changes, we have been able to develop and deploy a new system that is able to process about 1.2 million benefit requests out of USCIS’s total annual work volume,” Inouye added. “Our goals remain to improve operations, increase efficiency, and prepare for any changes to our immigration laws. Based on our recent progress, we are confident we are moving in the right direction.”

National Security

Apart from lost and misplaced paper applications, many advocate switching to electronic versions of forms to assist in national security. While DHS officials said “they are confident that the current paper-based system is not putting the nation at risk,” Palma Yanni, a D.C. immigration lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), is not so sure. She said in the Washington Post: “If there are some bad apples in there who should not get a green card, who are terrorists who want to do us harm, how on earth are they going to find these people if they’re sending mountains of paper immigration files all over the United States?’’