INS details broken process

When he became commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service last August, James Ziglar said he quickly discovered that the troubled agency information technology systems "were big on information and small on technology."

Among the worst of the systems was the one used to process requests for student visas, Ziglar told a House immigration subcommittee March 19.

Paper visa applications pour into INS, where they are reviewed — a process that can take up to a year. If approved, a notice is mailed to the student and another goes into a box.

"Literally, a box," said Ziglar, who was called before Congress to explain INS' latest performance disaster. On March 11, notice finally arrived at a Florida flight school that student visas had been approved for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi.

The pair died Sept. 11 when they piloted hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York in the most serious terrorist attack against the United States.

INS process plodded on, as if oblivious to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. When the box was full, it was shipped to London, Ky., where workers at Affiliated Computer Services Inc., type information from the forms into a database, scan the forms and create microfilm copies.

The electronic data and the microfilm were sent back to INS. Then the company had six months to send the second copy of the approval notice to the school the foreign student plans to attend.

"I found too much reliance on manual data entry," Ziglar told the subcommittee. "I found a lack of real-time data and a lack of readily accessible electronic information for accurate and timely reporting."

INS was unable to interconnect its own computer systems, let along connect with those operated by law enforcement agencies. Ziglar said he "found that enterprise architecture was still on the drawing board."

Ziglar got little sympathy from the subcommittee. Republicans and Democrats alike pummeled the INS.

"If the INS is unable to identify terrorists whose acts are complete," how can anyone be confident that they can detect and deter future terrorists, asked subcommittee chairman Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.).

"We should be grateful this egregious error occurred with dead terrorists, not live ones," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

"The INS is worse than useless," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). "It expends funds but produces nothing."

Ziglar said that since the attacks, he had ordered changes in some visa procedures:

* Student visa applications are now checked against terrorist databases to prevent issuing visas to known terrorists.

* Processing time for student visa status changes has been cut to 30 days at two processing centers and about 60 days at two others.

* The average time it takes to process adjustment of status applications has been cut from 30 to 13 months, Ziglar said.

* The INS plans to replace its paper student visa system with an Internet-based administration and tracking system by Jan. 1, 2003.

INS inspectors now have computer access to some State Department visa data at ports of entry.

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