Immigration Agency Spars with Inspector over Failed $3.1B Digital System

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The IG wrote: "We undertook this audit to answer a relatively simple question: after 11 years and considerable expense, what has been the outcome -- right now -- of USCIS' efforts to automate benefits processing?"

A Department of Homeland Security official has not only dismissed an internal investigator’s recommendations to fix a failed $3.1 billion effort to computerize immigration files, but also denies there is a problem.

The Transformation program will cost 480 percent more than the $536 million budgeted in 2005 and still will not be finished for another three years, according to the DHS inspector general. Today, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel resort to passing folders and printing out screenshots to process 7.6 million green card petitions, visa requests, refugee forms and dozens of other types of applications annually. 

That the project has busted budgets and schedules to offer only two online forms, without proper fraud controls in place, has been documented on Nextgov and sister publication Government Executive since early 2011. The travails also were the focus of a front page November 2015 Washington Post story.

What’s new in the March 9 report regarding the "Electronic Immigration System," or ELIS, is growing exasperation in DHS IG John Roth’s assessment of the program and agency leadership.

"I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to express my disappointment at the tone and substance of your office's response to the audit report, as well as audit staff's efforts throughout this project,” Roth says in a cover letter accompanying the final review. “This is our sixth review of a deeply troubled program which has, over its life, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. In the course of our audit work, and that of the Government Accountability Office, USCIS has continually minimized the shortcomings of the program and resisted independent oversight.”

The inspector had a word with the director, earlier, too, during a Jan. 15 face-to-face meeting in Rodriguez’s office where Roth criticized the conduct of program office chief Kath Stanley, although the exact nature of Roth's concerns are not laid out in the report. 

In the 67-page indictment of ELIS, Roth also took issue with the agency's refusal to "concur" with the IG's recommendations, a fairly routine practice in government auditing.

"Non-concurrence of this nature does not appear rational, is contrary to department policy on audit resolution -- and suggests continued effort to promote disagreement for its own sake" rather than cooperating to advance agency operations, the inspector said.

More Paperwork

In a Feb. 12 written response to a draft of the report, USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez argued the draft contained inaccuracies and anecdotal evidence, while leaving out agency comment.

Roth countered, "We went to the field locations where ELIS was being used and literally stood over the users' shoulders and watched them struggle with the system."

Part of the conflict, according to Roth, is that the agency would have preferred he focus on the project's "agile development" approach that releases code in stages to see if features work properly before switching on a potentially dysfunctional system upon system completion.

The efficiency of Transformation’s coding style is not relevant to Roth’s work, he tells Rodriguez. "We undertook this audit to answer a relatively simple question: after 11 years and considerable expense, what has been the outcome -- right now -- of USCIS' efforts to automate benefits processing?" 

The answer to that question:  At the time of the inspection, "which ended in July 2015, little progress has been made."

There are two online services available to citizens and would-be citizens. Individuals can now electronically pay a $165 processing fee for a visa packet and apply to replace a green card. Last summer, the agency took two forms offline when it transitioned to a new IT environment. 

The features available to caseworkers also is limited and, sometimes, counterproductive. For example, Roth says that employees cannot fix data entry errors or enter comments once a case is processed. 

In addition, ELIS has created additional paperwork for certain employees. 

Unlike previous tools, the new system has limited ability to track output. Contract workers "had to capture screenshots to prove they had completed key steps such as applicant verification," Roth said. The contractors "had to keep these printouts as part of the already voluminous case files" for verification purposes. 

Employees also told Roth the system blocks them from reassigning cases after adjudication, an action sometimes necessary to run background investigations or fraud checks. Other personnel reported frequent system outages and cases "lost" in ELIS.

Processing times have increased from three days using past practices to more than 10 days using ELIS, Roth said.

As of June 2015, the help desk backlog had reached 1,000 open tickets dating back to November 2014. 

Green Cards Mailed to the Wrong People

ELIS was intended to fill some of the information holes that let terrorists slip in before and after Sept. 11, 2001. Roth found that the agency has not achieved those national security goals.  

"There have been numerous problems with documents printed with incorrect names or mailed to the wrong addresses, he said, adding that this "has created potential security concerns about documents that cannot be accounted for or that may have fallen into the wrong hands." 

More green cards were sent to the wrong address after ELIS was activated in 2012 than before. The mismailings likely were due to a "system limitation" that prevents caseworkers from changing entries after filling out the address field, Roth said.

Perhaps worse, the agency has no way of figuring out how many people may now possess someone else’s green card. Program office personnel manually sent out instructions on how to mail the cards back, but this method did not work, Roth said. Attempts to remail returned cards required hiring two more workers dedicated solely to that task. 

Outside of USCIS, DHS agencies and partner law enforcement offices do not have direct access to the system. At ports of entry, Customs and Border Protection officers, for example, had to call USCIS field offices and have caseworkers check each customer’s green card status, causing immigrants to be detained for up to a day.

Other system glitches include double billing users for fees and doling out free benefits. 

Despite the overcharges and freebies, ELIS had accrued about $1.2 billion in sunk costs by April 2015. The system is funded through processing fees paid by applicants. 

When Roth recommended that the agency initiate a plan to address Transformation’s challenges and help users, the director did not concur, explaining that there already are procedures in place to handle this suggestion. 

Based on the exchange of letters, about all the pair agreed on is that "technology is crucial for USCIS to accomplish its mission.”

Rodriguez said he could not concur with all of Roth's findings and recommendations because they do not reflect the full extent of the agency's efforts to launch new technology in support of lawful immigration. 

"USCIS does not understand the report's assertion that national security was impacted based on address changes by applicants," he said. The system intentionally restricts the ability to "overwrite data in order to ensure data quality," Rodriguez explained. 

He acknowledged that Transformation has had past problems, but said the new agile tactics and a move to the cloud have improved the program. "USCIS is committed to ensuring the completion and success of electronic processing of immigration benefits."

Nextgov has requested comment from the agency and Homeland Security on the final report. 

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