Homeland Security

DHS watchdog warns agency on ELIS system


Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General called on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  to stop its plans to put a beleaguered immigration data processing system back into service in late January.

The IG took the "extraordinary step" of making the recommendation while it was still compiling a report, because of USCIS plans to restore the system by the end of January 2017.

The agency watchdog identified "alarming security concerns regarding inadequate background checks and other functionality problems" in the Electronic Immigration System, dubbed ELIS by the agency as a reference to Ellis Island.

According to the IG, ELIS allows cases to advance, despite incomplete or inaccurate background and security checks. The report said approximately 175 applicants were granted citizenship as of Jan.  11, 2017, before the problem was detected. USCIS redid the name checks to ensure they were all completed correctly, it said.

"Without sufficient vetting, immigrants could potentially be granted U.S. citizenship although they are ineligible or pose national security threats," a spokesperson for DHS OIG told FCW.

The system, according to the report, is missing core functionality and requires workers to manually intervene in case flows to  validate and move data. The system was also plagued by frequent outages and failed to connect with supporting systems.

The ELIS program has been troubled for a long time. A March 2016 DHS IG report found the system was exceeding cost and timetable estimates, and the agency then estimated that full automation would take three more years and another $1 billion.

In addition its limited deployment, the system "was not user friendly, was missing critical functionality and had significant performance problems processing benefits cases," the March report stated.

For example, comments and errors could not be changed once a case was processed, and the system was effective only in "straightforward" cases, according to the report. Additionally, it said system lags and outages were "frequent."

In 2015, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson sprang to the defense of ELIS, after news reports were critical of its long development time, cost and lack of success. At that time, Johnson praised the move to rethink ELIS and put it on agile footing.

The U.S. Digital Service, which has helped steer USCIS toward agile solutions for fixing ELIS, noted that the project has moved to a DevOps basis and has frequent releases. But the USDS year-end report to Congress was clear that both ELIS and other efforts to put immigration systems on a digital platform were works in progress.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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