House assails INS systems

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 the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Claims 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, two such notices finally arrived at a Florida flight school, with news that student visas had been approved for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-shehhi.

The two died Sept. 11 when they piloted hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

Nevertheless, the INS process plodded on. When the box was full, it was sent to London, Ky., where Affiliated Computer Services Inc. workers typed information from the forms into a database, scanned the forms and created microfilm copies.

Affiliated Computer Services sent the electronic data and the microfilm back to INS. Then the company had six months to send the second copy of the approval notice to the school the foreign students planned to attend.

Ziglar took office as INS commissioner five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks. IT problems soon became obvious.

"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 alone connect with those operated by law enforcement agencies. Ziglar said he "found that enterprise architecture was still on the drawing board."

And that wasn't all. Ziglar soon discovered that he couldn't even hire a chief information officer to help. "I had my eye on two or three" from the private sector, he said. But he couldn't pay them enough to interest them in the job.

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

Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, asked, "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?

"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."

Since the attacks, Ziglar said he has ordered changes in some visa procedures:

* Student visa applications are now checked against 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 months to 13 months.

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

* INS workers can now electronically access some State Department visa data at ports of entry.

But such changes hardly begin to address the problems, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). "Creating microfilm? Paper files? We're never going to protect ourselves against the bad guys" with those, she said.

"You'd be shocked. DOS systems are alive and well" in INS, added Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, California's technology center. INS' backward IT "is dangerous," she said.

It is as much a management problem as a technology problem, Lofgren said. Ziglar needs the authority to fire incompetent agency employees, hire competent ones and install IT systems that work, she said.

INS computer systems must be connected to law enforcement and intelligence databases so the immigration agency knows when it is dealing with suspected terrorists, Lofgren said.

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