DHS OIG slams USCIS on immigration IT

DHS Inspector General John Roth took a hard line on USCIS's lagging immigration benefits processing system in an audit that covered an 11-year cycle of IT shortcomings and agency resistance to independent examinations.

John Roth

DHS IG John Roth took a tough line in an audit chronicling automation problems at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The Department of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services' efforts to transition its immigration benefits processing from a paper-based system are exceeding cost and timetable estimates, and the agency estimates that full automation of the Electronic Immigration System (dubbed ELIS) will take three more years and another $1 billion, according to an audit from the DHS inspector general released March 9.

DHS IG John Roth criticized an 11-year USCIS trend of IT shortcomings and resistance to independent examinations. "This is our sixth review of a deeply troubled program which has, over its life, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars," he said in the report. "We undertook this audit to answer a relatively simple question: after 11 years and considerable expense, what has been the outcome -- right now -- of USCIS' efforts to automate benefits processing?"

The answer, Roth said, is that by the time OIG field work ended in July 2015, "little progress had been made."

USCIS, which comprises five percent of the DHS's $60 billion budget, has 19,000 employees and contractors and processed 7.6 million applications in FY2015.  The agency says it has made "significant progress" since July 2015, but still relies on paper-based processes, which include more than 20 million immigrant files ranging from "one to six inches thick," according to the review. Those processes cost over $300 million annually to maintain.

Despite ELIS's May 2012 launch, only two of about 90 types of immigration services are handled online: Immigrant Fees and Applications to Replace Permanent Resident Cards. These two account for less than 10 percent of the agency's workload.

Only 2,215 of USCIS' 19,000 employees and contractors had ELIS accounts, the OIG found, and the digital system was not operational and editing was not possible at the vast majority of USCIS offices, resulting in an inability to correct bad data.

In addition to ELIS' limited deployment, the system "was not user friendly, was missing critical functionality and had significant performance problems processing benefits cases," the 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. Additionally, system lags and outages were described as "frequent."

"We met with over 125 USCIS and DHS personnel… and also collected more than 350 supporting documents," said Roth. "We went to field locations where ELIS was being used and literally stood over the users' shoulders and watched them struggle with the system."

Eric Hysen, head of DHS' Digital Services team, responded to the audit by noting that the rebooted system is following agile practices, and now delivers functionality with rapid releases built around a modern, open source technology stack. While acknowledging the flaws seen by OIG auditors, Hysen noted that the report didn't take into account the pace of improvements now being delivered on core ELIS functions.

The audit recommended USCIS improve communications with stakeholders to cull beneficial feedback, implement adequate performance metrics to measure operability, implement a testing process for new system releases and provide technical support to ensure successful automation efforts.

In a response from USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez, the agency concurred with the second and third recommendations, but disagreed with the first and the fourth. Rodriguez also acknowledged past "challenges" for USCIS, but stated that "several facts in the report are inaccurately presented."

"I am perplexed at USCIS' non-concurrence with two of the four recommendations, given that USCIS is already performing activities in line with the recommended actions," Roth said. "Non-concurrence of this nature does not appear rational, is contrary to Department policy on audit resolution… and suggests continued effort to promote disagreement for its own sake rather than collaboration towards the shared goal of promoting effectiveness and efficiency in Department operations."

Roth also suggested in his memorandum that the conflict arose from the scope of the audit, which focused on years of development effort, and not improvements to the site in the last eight months or the shift to agile development methodologies. 

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