Immigration to Go Paperless

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008

The Bush administration has launched a major overhaul of the nation's immigration services agency, selecting an industry consortium led by IBM to reinvent how the government handles about 7 million applications each year for visas, citizenship and approval to work in the United States, officials announced yesterday.

If successful, the five-year, $500 million effort to convert U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' case-management system from paper-based to electronic could reduce backlogs and processing delays by at least 20 percent, and possibly more than 50 percent, people close to the project said. Those problems have long frustrated new Americans and other immigrants.

The new system would allow government agencies, from the Border Patrol to the FBI to the Labor Department, to access immigration records faster and more accurately. In combination with initiatives to link digital fingerprint scans to unique identification numbers, it would create a lifelong digital record for applicants. It also would eliminate the need for time- and labor-intensive filing and refiling of paper forms, which are stored at 200 locations in 70 million manila file folders.

Known internally as the transformation initiative, the long-awaited and much-delayed effort is considered a cornerstone of any broader effort to fix an immigration system considered one of the most broken bureaucracies in the federal government.

If Congress were to overhaul immigration laws, by creating a guest-worker program or allowing illegal immigrants to gain legal status, for example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) expects it would have to make even greater changes. The agency suggested to potential contractors during last year's immigration debate that $3.5 billion worth of work might be required, officials said.

The case-management system "is going to transform the way USCIS and its predecessors have done business for the last 50 years, and the success or failure of this venture will determine the effectiveness" of any future immigration overhaul, said Prakash Khatri, a homeland security consultant at KPK Global Solutions. Khatri served as the immigration agency's ombudsman for the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 through February of this year.

Acting USCIS Director Jonathan "Jock" Scharfen announced that International Business Machines Corp. was selected over rivals CSC and Accenture to serve as a "solutions architect" for the $2.6 billion-a-year agency, which employs 10,700 government workers and 8,000 contractors at 200 locations nationwide.

The contract, awarded this week and the largest federal homeland security bid on the market, includes a $14.5 million, 90-day assessment period with options over five years worth $491.1 million.

The agency in a statement called the initial task order "just one of the building blocks of USCIS' overall transformation plan." That plan is being funded with the help of a summer 2007 fee increase on immigrant applicants, which freed up roughly $650 million over five years, said Scharfen's acting deputy, Mike Aytes.

Government investigators have reported that the agency's pre-computer-age paper filing system incurs $100 million a year in archiving, storage, retrieval and shipping costs; has led to the loss or misplacement of more than 100,000 files; and has contributed to backlogs and delays for millions of cases.

Modernization efforts, proposed in 1999, have been delayed by funding problems, inertia, post-Sept. 11 security demands and reorganization triggered by the creation of the Homeland Security Department. The department's inspector general in 2007 faulted the agency for being "entrenched in a cycle of continual planning, with little progress."

Analysts said USCIS moved carefully in the past two years to structure the project to avoid flaws that derailed other major Homeland Security contracts, including SBInet, a Customs and Border Protection effort with Boeing to build a "virtual" border fence using surveillance technology, and Deepwater, the Coast Guard's massive fleet-replacement effort with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

"We're proud of 2008 and the milestones we've met," Scharfen said in a statement. "But, much work remains."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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