Citizenship office’s IT shortcomings pose ‘significant risks,’ watchdogs say

A USCIS naturalization ceremony in Mt. Vernon, Va., in 2015. (Department of Homeland Security / Flickr)

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If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not step up its transition from paper to electronic immigration processing, it risks further unnecessary spending and harm to national security, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.

The 27-page report, released and presented to the House Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee late last week, focuses on how the agency’s Transformation Project has been delayed numerous times because of a failure to implement agile practices and due to difficulties in managing contracts.

Carol Harris, director of information technology acquisition management issues for GAO and author of the report, said there are “significant risks” in such a lag and urged USCIS address these chronic issues to reduce costs and the possibility of security threats entering the country.

“Given the history of development for the Transformation Program and the subsequent commitment of additional resources for a new system, it is more important than ever that USCIS consistently follow key practices in its system development efforts,” Harris wrote in a report summary.

“If the agency does not address the issues GAO has identified in prior work, then it will continue to experience significant risk for increased costs, further schedule delays, and performance shortfalls,” she added.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, USCIS in the past six months granted citizenship to 858 people who had been ordered deported and erroneously issued roughly 20,000 green cards due to problems with ELIS.

OIG has recommended USCIS cease plans to process naturalization applications though ELIS because of insufficient background checks.

USCIS began the Transformation Program 11 years ago as an electronic application tool for immigrants that could also provide better customer service and operational efficiency. The switch from paper to electronic applications would also make it easier to share information with counterterrorism agencies such as the FBI, officials have added.

But it has been slowed by recurring delays as well as failed implementation of agile software development practices and contract management challenges, according to GAO. A congressional audit report released in July had similar findings.

The GAO also said last week that software testing has not followed standard and full procedures, leading to system defects.

The delays pose a number of problems for USCIS: Not only will the service be unable to enhance security, program efficiency and customer service, but it will also incur costs for maintaining existing systems.

Officials warned that without sufficient IT to process applicants, they could not only receive immigration benefits but also be granted citizens while posing security threats.

The latest estimate pegs the program at a cost of up to $3.1 billion and an implementation date of no later than March 2019, roughly $1 billion more costly and four years later than a 2011 estimate.

The chairman of the Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee, Scott Perry, said last week that illegal aliens or “even terrorists” may have been granted permanent residency under what he called USCIS’s “ineptitude.” Perry, R-Pa., also cited findings from GAO that USCIS could not detect fraud in immigrant and asylum applications due to deficiencies in the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS).

“Unfortunately, after investing 11 years and about $1.4 billion, USCIS has very little to show for its efforts,” Perry said. “Taxpayers deserve more than a program that’s a poster child for IT mismanagement.”

USCIS, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, processes immigration applications and grants U.S. citizenship among other functions.

The agency processes millions of applications each year for both temporary and permanent residency.

“It is essential that USCIS deploy a seamless electronic system to help ensure the integrity of the immigration process,” the GAO’s Harris said. “Such a system should allow the agency to more accurately process immigration and citizenship benefits in a timely manner and identify fraudulent and criminal activity.”

Mark Schwartz, chief information officer of USCIS, could not be reached for comment.

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Department of Homeland Security, GAO, Government Accountability Office, Homeland Security, Immigration, IT Modernization, USCIS