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After Delays, USCIS Sets New Deadline for Digital Immigration Records

An orientation seminar for illegal immigrants, to determine if they qualify for temporary work permits, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

An orientation seminar for illegal immigrants, to determine if they qualify for temporary work permits, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. // Reed Saxon/AP

Computerizing casework at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is a major difficulty and will be a key priority going forward, new USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez said Tuesday in his first congressional appearance.

Since 2008, the agency has unsuccessfully attempted to digitize the paper folders personnel currently use for evaluating the immigrants' legal status.

Now, the $1.7 billion fee-funded information technology effort, called Transformation, is moving forward under a new strategy intended to curb schedule delays, Rodriguez told members of the House Judiciary Committee. 

"For me, one of my top challenges and top priorities is tackling our agency’s information systems," he said at a committee hearing

USCIS officials had originally slated to complete Transformation in 2013.  On Tuesday, officials for the first time provided an estimated end date of fiscal 2018 or 2019.

'It’s Important That We Do It Once, Do It Right'

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., pressed Rodriguez on the "need for efficiency in the agency," noting that "it’s tough to do, but coming from Silicon Valley, it’s important that we do it once, do it right."

She described the situation of a foreign businessman whose USCIS records indicated he had left the country, even though he never did. "He had to prove it over and over and over again,” she said.

“How do we get technology deployed so that [such matters] do not have to be relitigated, wasting the time, not only of the government, but of the businesses and families that rely on quick resolution?” she said. 

Rodriguez, who took office July 9, acknowledged the agency's computer systems leave something to be desired. 

"In many cases, the systems we have are either paper systems or legacy electronic systems that really are not enabling us to operate -- we’re operating very well, as much as anything else due to the ingenuity and work ethic of our people," he said. "But we could be operating better if we had a modern information system."

The agency's inspector general recently took notice of the elbow grease required to handle forms. Using the new IT tool, the Electronic Immigration System -- or ELIS -- takes twice as long as processing applications by hand, according to the IG report, released earlier this month.

Rodriguez said programmatic changes are underway to ensure system features work as intended. 

Digital Records Eventually Slated for the Cloud

A new technology backbone that uses open source software and, ultimately, Department of Homeland Security cloud services is anticipated by the end of the year, he said.

"The new architecture supports rigorous and ongoing performance and end user testing before deployment,” he said in his written testimony.

Web-based services should provide more bandwidth, at a time when the Obama administration is deliberating over how to handle the nation’s 12 million undocumented foreigners. "The new architecture will support operations in the DHS cloud environment. This will eventually allow for expansion should workload increase," the testimony said.

New user features will be made available at least every six months, Rodriguez said. By the end of September, multiple contractors will start phasing in new functions within these short time frames, using an approach known as agile development.” The strategy is aimed at discovering bugs before employees and applicants try out the system.

“Making sure that, before I conclude my tenure, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, for those challenges, will be a top priority,” Rodriguez said during the hearing.

On ELIS, foreigners currently can e-file applications to pay immigrant fees and obtain foreign entrepreneur green cards. 

Much of the discussion at Tuesday's hearing centered on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a controversial program that protects certain illegal immigrants brought to the country as children from deportation. ELIS does not yet handle DACA applicants.  About 580,000 individuals have been able to remain stateside under DACA since the program began two summers ago, Rodriguez said.

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