Mishandling of immigration casework e-system angers lawmakers

Lawmakers say they are frustrated and almost in disbelief, following an internal watchdog's findings that a project to build an immigration processing system has squandered millions of dollars and could be on its way to siphoning off more funds.

The chronicle of waste and mismanagement comes at a time when the Obama administration aims to create legal pathways to citizenship that could further increase caseloads for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. The Transformation program was designed to computerize the processing of applications for legal residency and other immigration benefits. Many petitions currently reside in paper folders that personnel must handle manually.

A Government Accountability Office audit released Nov. 22 reported that USCIS abandoned procurement rules in 2008 when it contracted with IBM for the work. The agency failed to nail down system requirements, an acquisition strategy and price points -- yielding a $292 million cost increase before even finishing the project.

"The GAO documented that Citizenship and Immigration Services has been clearly negligent in its administration of the Transformation project," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, delays and cost overruns are all too familiar in the federal government. There can't be any more excuses. Every dollar counts."

Grassley in February had asked agency officials for a progress report on Transformation, following a Nextgov article that stated the total cost of the project, at the time, was projected to jump from about $500 million to $2.2 billion.

A Grassley aide said the senator now plans to ask USCIS more questions.

According to GAO officials, the total cost of the endeavor continues to fluctuate wildly -- from $3.4 billion in 2007 to $500 million in 2008 and now $1.7 billion -- with officials still uncertain about a final estimate.

DHS "has not yet validated the life-cycle cost estimate as being sound and reasonable," the auditors wrote. "At this time, the total expected costs of the program from initiation through completion remain uncertain."

On Monday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee's immigration panel, said, "I am disappointed to read that USCIS' failure to adhere to its own protocols has resulted in significant implementation delays and hundreds of millions of wasted dollars."

She added, "It is difficult to believe that in 2011 USCIS still remains largely a paper-based agency, and I look forward to the time in which the agency completes its transformation to the Digital Age."

Lofgren said she was "heartened" to hear that the agency has admitted its missteps and come to an agreement with GAO officials on a path forward. "The USCIS transformation program is long overdue and extremely important," she said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has been trying to crack down on information technology mismanagement and DHS needs to continue to do the same, an aide for the senator said on Monday.

"GAO's findings are very troubling and yet another example of a massive IT project that has run into serious problems," Lieberman press secretary Sara Lonardo said. "Particularly in this era of tight budgets and fiscal constraint, it is more crucial than ever that no taxpayer money is wasted."

More than two years behind schedule, only one form -- for visitors seeking extensions to stay in the country -- is set to go online in December. The project is expected to wrap up in 2014.

In response to a draft of the report, Homeland Security officials detailed steps under way to produce accurate time frames for deployment and life-cycle cost estimates. On Monday, USCIS officials declined to comment on progress made since the audit's conclusion.

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