Report: CIS clings to paper-driven applications process

Despite recent attempts to improve, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau is using IT ineffectively and still relies largely on paper documents and disconnected IT solutions to process millions of applications a year, according to a new report from Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

"USCIS' IT environment for processing immigration benefits continues to be inefficient, hindering its ability to carry out its mission," the report said. "USCIS continues to rely on personnel rather than technology to meet its backlog reduction goals and other priorities."

The 56-page report, released Monday on the inspector general's Web site, identified multiple problems with the lack of appropriate IT systems at the immigration agency, which has 15,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.8 billion.

Shortcomings include heavy reliance on paper documents, old and unreliable computer hardware, nonintegration of existing IT systems, continued development of ad hoc IT solutions by field staff, and lack of centralized IT planning and systems despite several attempts to improve things.

"USCIS uses multiple, disparate information systems that are difficult to use and do not adequately share information, resulting in data integrity problems," the report said. "The systems operate on different hardware platforms that are outdated, unstable and not routinely replaced."

Also contributing to the IT problems and management challenges has been the reorganization of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was split into three units in 2003, Skinner wrote.

One of those units is USCIC, and the other two, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection, were formed by merging immigration-related functions with the Customs Service. All three new agencies were placed within DHS when the new department was formed in 2003.

The reorganization created uncertainties and bureaucratic challenges, which in turn has caused additional delays in IT modernization that had been in the pipeline and created an extra layer of bureaucracy, the report said

Also, USCIC's management is still having a hard time getting recognized within DHS, which has contributed to the service's IT difficulties. "DHS has not approved USCIS' organizational chart, even though it was submitted to senior department managers for approval more than a year ago," the report stated.

As a result of the IT problems, processing of paper documents is slow, inefficient, expensive and results in backlogs, the IG said. At the end of fiscal 2004 its backlog totaled about 1.5 million cases.

"A major drawback of inefficient paper-based processing is the high cost to ship and store files. USCIS spends millions of dollars a year shipping files across the country," the report said. However, the IG was unable to obtain total annual shipping costs for the bureau.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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