GAO: Tech can reduce immigrant benefits backlog

By improving its use of technology, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) could eliminate the backlog of applications from immigrants seeking benefits, the General Accountability Office said in a report released today.

GAO auditors said USCIS must create a new case management system that tracks how long applications have been awaiting resolution, and the agency must better explain how its information technology investments will prevent future backlogs.

“Although USCIS has made progress in reducing its backlog of benefit applications, it seems unlikely that USCIS will meet its backlog elimination goal –- to reduce the number of benefit applications to a level that is equal to six months’ worth of work by Sept. 30, 2006 -– in every office and for every application type,” said Paul Jones, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO.

The process of adjudicating immigrants’ benefit applications can last two years or longer, negatively affecting applicants, their families and employers.

USCIS reduced its backlog to roughly 1.2 million applications in June, down from a January 2004 peak of 3.8 million. According to the GAO report, USCIS doesn’t know precisely how many backlogged applications it has because its operational definition is at odds with the Immigration Services and Infrastructure Improvements Act of 2000, which set the September 2006 deadline.

USCIS achieved most of the reduction by hiring more employees and reassigning others to help adjudicate applications, the report states. The agency has spent about 70 percent of the money allocated for backlog reduction to pay overtime and hire temporary adjudication staff.

Since fiscal 2002, USCIS has invested $10.5 million, or about 2 percent of that money, in technology improvements, the report states.

USCIS plans to replace its manual, paper-driven adjudication process with an automated, paperless system by 2010. The technology transformation plan, which is still in development, would involve upgrading the agency’s IT infrastructure, managing data better and creating new business processes. USCIS has estimated that the upgrades will cost $1.4 billion in the next five years.

However, the agency has not addressed how its technology transformation would streamline the adjudication process and allow it to allocate its existing workforce more productively, the report states. Auditors also wrote that USCIS’ operational and strategic plans must assure Congress that IT investments and staff reallocations are actually reducing the application backlog.

GAO recommended that USCIS make sure its plans include the ability to track the age of applications and define the improvements it expects to achieve.

USCIS must also redefine its backlog in terms of the 2000 legislation, the report states, and it must create a systematic and inclusive quality assurance program to ensure that all benefit applications and adjudication decisions are handled fairly.

USCIS officials agreed with the report’s findings and said they are either already implementing GAO’s recommendations or will do so shortly, said Steven Pecinovsky, director of the GAO/Office of Inspector General Liaison at the Homeland Security Department, which oversees USCIS.

He said officials expect to deploy USCIS’ new case management system in October 2006. Applications received after Sept. 30, 2006, will be entered into the new system to prevent future backlogs, he added.

The system will also generate reports showing how long individual applications have been awaiting adjudication, as GAO requested, he said.

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