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Lawmakers scrutinize delayed immigration processing program

A troubled Homeland Security Department project intended to expedite the processing of immigration papers has run into additional delays and is attracting congressional scrutiny.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the Transformation program, started it in 2007 with the goal of using $536 million by 2013 to automate a paper-based system for applicants seeking to live, study or work in the country. Since then, budget projections have mushroomed and launch dates have slipped to the point where the project is not expected to end until 2022, at a cost of $2.2 billion, according to agency officials and documents that Nextgov has obtained.

In a Feb. 16 letter to the agency's director, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, asked USCIS officials to brief his staff by Feb. 28 "in order to gain a complete understanding of the problems inhibiting the USCIS Transformation project." Grassley is a vocal champion of the agency's E-Verify system, an online tool that allows employers to confirm the legal immigration status of potential hires.

In expressing his unease "about the failures encountered" by USCIS, Grassley cited a Feb. 4 Nextgov report that stated more than $630 million has been spent on Transformation so far.

"I'm concerned that very few improvements have been made since the Government Accountability Office reported to Congress in 2007 about the Transformation initiative," he wrote. "The GAO and the inspector general have noted that 'efforts to modernize ... have been unfocused, conducted in an ad hoc and decentralized manner, and in certain instances, duplicative."

Lawmakers gave USCIS the green light to obligate certain funding for Transformation, under the condition that it complete three pilot tests and report back on lessons learned. One of the demonstration projects failed. The Secure Information Management Service was supposed to digitize international adoption records for faster inspection.

A 2009 request by a project manager to scrap SIMS stated the service was hard to maneuver and did not meet specifications for ensuring the tool was accessible to people with disabilities. The request explained that a costly upgrade would be the only way to comply with accessibility standards, and cited usability issues: "reporting is extremely difficult, screen displays are often awkward, the logic is difficult and not always intuitive, the views are overly complex." USCIS officials approved the termination in October 2009.

At the same time, an inspector general at Homeland Security recommended the USCIS finish documenting results and lessons learned from the pilot programs. In March 2010, the DHS assistant inspector general for IT testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee that the demonstrations had been hampered by, among other things, insufficient performance reviews.

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday said he understood Grassley's quest for accountability and would respond to his inquiry.

"With respect to being over budget, I do not believe the program is over budget. I do believe that there have been some delays to the program," he said. "One of the reasons is that we agreed to re-sequence [the project]."

The agency decided "we should track transformation chronologically" in the order in which applicants pursue naturalization, Mayorkas explained. "Also, there was a protest. That was out of our control."

The initial cost presented was the contract cost, while the more recent estimates take into account overhead and personnel costs and other noncontract expenses, he noted. "And secondly, I think costs have shifted in time," he said. "And the re-sequencing has caused an increase" in the actual spending levels.

Former and current Homeland Security employees claim officials are covering up ongoing failures by using the decision to switch the order of installation as an excuse for delays. One person characterized the program as worse than a "money pit."

The nonpartisan Brookings Institution in January recommended the government digitize visa cases to help resolve one aspect of the immigration debate -- errors and delays that prevent students and workers from contributing to the nation's economy.

Last week, Homeland Security officials removed data points describing the total money spent on Transformation and the project's end date from the IT Dashboard, a federal website that tracks major IT investments.

The Nextgov story cited links to the figures, as well as confirmation from USCIS officials, to note that the Transformation is expected to be completed in 2022 and DHS has spent $631.1 million on the project, including contract costs, government salaries, program management support contracts, operational and IT infrastructure upgrades, and general expenses. DHS officials were unable to respond to requests for an explanation of why the data were removed.*

USCIS officials as recently as Feb. 2 expected the system would be able to handle several nonimmigrant benefit forms by fall 2011. But they now say only one form, which is for visitors requesting extensions to stay in the country, will be ready by the end of the year.

On Wednesday, USCIS spokesman Chris Bentley said specialists working on Transformation advised the agency first nail down the procedures for automating one form type so it can more quickly replicate the process for the rest of the forms.

"Follow-on rollouts of new formats will be very easy because we'll already have the foundation in place," Bentley said. "The others we'll rollout during the next calendar year."

Agency officials anticipate that Internet accounts for applicants and case management tools for staff will come online in 2012 for Temporary Protected Status (I-821), Employment Authorization (I-765) and Travel Documents (I-131).

"USCIS will launch the core foundation of the new case management system starting with the Form I-539 by the end of the year," officials said in a statement. "By that time, we will have deployed necessary infrastructure upgrades, conducted employee training, and launched both the customer account setup and automated core case management."

* Update: DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie on Friday said a technical glitch caused the data to be deleted from the IT dashboard.

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