Homeland Security

Immigration modernization a work in progress

Shutterstock image: government access keyboard. 

Efforts to modernize immigration processing systems at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have been rocky in the last couple of years, but the agency's acting director told a congressional panel that it's making some progress.

Bringing paper-based systems at CIS into the digital world "remains a substantial work in progress," said Lori Scialabba, CIS acting director at a House Homeland Security Oversight and Management subcommittee hearing on critical weaknesses in the agency's IT processing systems.

The hearing follows repeated Government Accountability Office and Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General Reports about the agency's troubled Electronic Immigration System, dubbed ELIS.

In January, the DHS IG recommended the agency stop using ELIS because of "alarming security concerns."

That warning was the latest episode in the ELIS saga, which began as a traditional "waterfall" IT development program in 2005-2006 under a single integrator. That project was radically altered in 2012 after the first release of the project didn't deliver on capabilities. Another IG report last November found that ELIS issued almost 20,000 duplicate green cards.

The problems with the systems, said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), increase the potential for extremely bad consequences. Potential black markets in green cards, visas issued erroneously and other snafus caused by inadequate technology, he said, "can lead to horrific results," such as use by dangerous criminals or terrorists.

Scialabba said CIS is gradually getting a handle on its systems. ELIS is part of the CIS Transformation Program. The program became part of CIS Office of Information Technology last January, she said. The agency's CIO now oversees its day-to-day operations.

It has been adding applications to its electronic processing system, including, in 2015, the application for green card replacement and, in 2016, applications for temporary protected status and deferred action for childhood arrivals. It also began a more complicated incorporation of applications for naturalization, but problems led to those applications being shifted to a legacy system in August 2016, Scialabba said.

The lurching, stop-and-go activity appeared to frustrate lawmakers on the committee.

"I'm disappointed that the department didn't send the USCIS chief information officer" to testify at the hearing about the "agency's information challenges," said subcommittee ranking member J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), who added that CIS has to learn how to manage agile acquisition processes.

The agency's shift to a more agile process to develop ELIS was noted, but lawmakers and DHS Inspector General John Roth, who also testified at the hearing, didn't appear convinced the agency had mastered the process.

Using agile processes, Roth said, requires some technical expertise on the part of the agency. That technical expertise at CIS, he said, was thin. Also communications to top agency officials about potential problems weren't efficient, which left those officials in the dark.

"If you put it out and it breaks, then pull it back, that's not agile," Roth said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

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 mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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