DHS Takes a Second Stab at Automating Immigration Casework

Illegal immigrant Layios Roberto waits outside the offices of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights with application papers in Los Angeles.

Illegal immigrant Layios Roberto waits outside the offices of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights with application papers in Los Angeles. Nick Ut/AP

InfoZen wins first contract in project's revival, hopes agile software development will make the difference.

InfoZen has won the first of multiple contracts for an electronic system to process immigration forms, a project that is trying to make a comeback after consuming five and a half years and an estimated $1 billion .

The three-year, $11.9 million award requires the company to combine software received from the various other vendors, and test the system's usability and compatibility with existing source code, among other things, according to federal officials and a request for proposals obtained by Nextgov

IBM, the incumbent on the initial 2008 $536,000 contract, will assist with the transition until May, Homeland Security Department officials said this week. Had DHS not changed course, officials estimated costs for the "Transformation" project could hit $3.6 billion. Currently, the public-facing tool, called the Electronic Immigration System -- ELIS in a nod to immigration station Ellis Island -- offers forms to pay fees for visa processing, extend or change the status of a stay, and apply for investor green cards.

DHS U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has not set a completion date for digitizing the rest of its casework.

USCIS distributed a solicitation for new proposals in June 2013 to a pool of 68 pre-vetted IT vendors on the “Alliant Small Business” contract vehicle. InfoZen was selected in October 2013 but the award was not disclosed in government contracting databases and the company only recently announced the agreement publicly.

“This contract is critical for the success of the agency’s large scale automation of current business processes, as well as deploying a modernized code base that is sustainable, cost-effective, and reusable," InfoZen President Raj Ananthanpillai said in a statement. The company declined to make an official available for this story. 

IBM's contract ended last year, but was extended in July to allow USCIS more time and flexibility for the changeover, agency officials said.

In a February 2012 memo, the agency's top tech chief blasted IBM’s performance to date. The company’s “design is poorly thought through and inconsistently applied by the developers. The result is duplication of efforts, time spent on rework, slowness in debugging problems, poor quality code, etc.,” USCIS Chief Information Officer Mark Schwartz wrote. 

Now, USCIS officials plan to have InfoZen lead a software design approach called "agile development." The practice, promoted governmentwide since the start of President Obama's first term, demands short deadlines for smaller sections of code and continuous feedback from agency users about functionality, as opposed to the traditional, less incremental process of spending large amounts of time and money building huge systems that upon completion often don't work as intended and are costly to fix or alter.

The Transformation project was being developed the traditional way.

Schwartz’s predecessor in the CIO position was reassigned after asserting the project was suffering from excessive costs, inadequate technology and mismanagement. Many former agency personnel still fume that Transformation was allowed to continue, despite warnings by the former official, as well as negative federal inspector general and Government Accountability Office audits.

IBM is not precluded from bidding on the forthcoming software jobs, which involve moving existing code to a new architecture, along with improving design and programming flaws.

When asked to comment on the hiring of InfoZen, company spokesman Michael Rowinski said, "IBM looks forward to continuing our important mission work for USCIS."