Immigration services bureau awards major IT task order

Homeland Security agency aims to improve e-filing process for those seeking U.S. citizenship.

The agency responsible for providing immigration services this week awarded a $500 million task order to consolidate its electronic filing systems during the next five years.

Comment on this article in The Forum.U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Homeland Security Department, awarded IBM the project, which aims to reduce the processing time for naturalization applications and other immigrant services by housing the information in a central database. Known officially as the Transformation Solution Architect task order, the job is part of the Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge Solutions, the department's multibillion-dollar vehicle for a host of information technology contracts and services.

As part of the task order's initial rollout in 2009, the agency plans to release data standards for third-party vendors interested in developing the software for the project and supporting the H-1B visa lottery process. H-1B visas are nonimmigrant visas reserved for foreign workers in specialty occupations; about 65,000 are set aside each year.

In its first phase, the project also will put in place risk management procedures to detect fraud in the H-1B filing process, said Rendell Jones, chief management officer at USCIS. In addition, he said the agency will aim to provide basic and easily accessible online information on the filing process to reduce call center waiting times. Jones emphasized that the agency's approach to implementing the new system is methodical. "You have to have a business process; it's not just paving the cow path," he said.

USCIS is touting the project as an important part of a more aggressive, overall agenda to improve customer service. On Wednesday, acting Director Jonathan "Jock" Scharfen held a press briefing in Washington with other USCIS officials to discuss the task order and a range of programs the agency oversees from E-Verify to refugee and asylum processing.

During last year's debate on immigration reform, some lawmakers questioned the agency's ability to improve a significant backlog and simultaneously launch major initiatives such as E-Verify, the system employers use to confirm that new hires can work legally in the United States. Scharfen said USCIS completed more than 1 million naturalization applications during fiscal 2008 and reduced the processing time to an average of 10 months, down from a high of 18 months in fiscal 2007.

As for the backlog on FBI name checks, Scharfen pledged that any case more than six months old as of February 2009 will be cleared by the summer. USCIS worked with the FBI during fiscal 2008 to reduce the number of cases waiting for a name check from nearly 350,000 in fiscal 2007 to less than 37,000 currently.

"Our agency, our employees worked hard," Scharfen said. USCIS hired 2,058 new employees -- 1,600 of whom are adjudication officers -- to tackle the backlog. The boost in staff is a 24 percent increase from fiscal 2007. "We right-sized the agency," he said.