Dems: Tech missing from INS reform

Reform legislation moving through the House of Representatives would dramatically restructure the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but it fails to address a central agency weakness — information technology — Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said April 10.

The committee is expected to pass legislation today that would split the INS in two — one half to handle immigration law enforcement, the other half to handle such matters as administering visas and naturalizing immigrants.

But the legislation does not give the agency guidance — or funding — for overhauling information systems that keep data on visiting tourists, business people and students. Much of the data is collected on paper and must be typed into databases, causing long delays and a multitude of mistakes.

During the hearing April 10, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents the tech-heavy Silicon Valley, lamented the absence of attention to INS technology troubles. But the committee chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), urged members to forge ahead, declaring "the time to act is now." Sensenbrenner is chief sponsor of the reform legislation.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar, the star witness at the hearing, acknowledged that the immigration agency has a troubled history with IT. Last month, for example, INS delivered notices of the approval for changes in visa status for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Ziglar explained that the visa changes were approved in July 2001, but INS' notification system is slow. It involves sending paper documents to a contractor whose employees have six months to type the information into a database.

Ziglar said INS is "moving as quickly as we can to bring ourselves into the 20th century technology-wise" to avoid such mistakes in the future.

Another troubled system is INS' "entry/exit system," designed to let immigration officials know whether visa holders have stayed in the country after their visas have expired. About half the visa holders who enter the United States stay on after their visas have expired, but INS officials generally do not know when they overstay and cannot find them if they do know.

INS attempted to set up an entry/exit system but has only an entry system, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) quipped.

Lack of modern systems is compounded by the agency's inability to attract talented technology managers, Ziglar said. He said he is searching for a chief information officer, but has been unable to attract the candidates he wants because of low pay.

Ziglar said he would like the flexibility to hire a CIO from the private sector rather than have to promote a civil servant, and that "it would also be nice to have some incentives" with which to entice a highly qualified technology expert to become the agency's CIO.

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