A February court ruling that suspended President Barack Obama's executive action to legalize millions of undocumented foreign children and their parents has partially paused development of the nation’s first-ever online immigration application system.
The decade-overdue website, which is not expected to be fully operational until 2018 or 2019, only accepts four types of forms.
Even before the suspension, the Electronic Immigration System, or ELIS -- a nod to the early 20th-century immigration gateway -- could not handle the normal flow of about 6 million benefit applications annually.
Now the injunction has halted plans to accommodate the intake of an additional 5 million undocumented individuals whose deportations would be postponed by Obama's policies.
ELIS improvements that made it possible for one of the four forms to go online last week were expected to pave the way for processing the new class of immigrants.
The application, Form I-90 for replacing green cards, requires foreigners to submit biometrics in person, as do applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program.
But further technological development has ceased for now.
"Implementation activities in support of expanded DACA and DAPA have been put on hold in light of the court’s order," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services press secretary Shin Inouye told Nextgov. That includes the planned rollout of their associated ELIS forms.
Judge Andrew Hanen, of the U.S. District Court in Brownsville, Texas, issued the injunction Feb. 16, after 26 states argued Obama did not have the authority to initiate the programs without permission from Congress.
Computerizing immigration paperwork was intended to help close cases faster and make it easier to spot fraud.
Senate Republican staffers had said a functioning ELIS would enable decision-makers to quickly search for signs of security threats and analyze suspicious patterns. But ELIS was not available when the new program for delaying child deportations was scheduled to start in February.
The staffers also expressed doubts about whether the tools to support parent applications would be ready when that program was slated to begin in May. Plans for a May start date have been suspended, Homeland Security officials said on Friday.
An inspector general report last summer found it takes twice as long to close a case using ELIS compared to paper documents. Somewhere between 100 and 150 clicks are required to switch between sublevels and open documents.
The government continues to process applications -- without ELIS -- for a pre-existing, narrower version of the child program that began in 2012, Inouye said.
The Justice Department has appealed the judge’s ruling. The administration maintains expansion of the child program and the reprieve for parents of legal permanent residents would allow U.S. authorities to focus on deporting higher-priority criminal offenders.
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