U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was supposed to have completed its conversion to a new automated system last year that would streamline and speed up the processing of green cards and other immigration benefits.
Not only has the system gone 480 percent over budget and failed to meet its deadlines but it has increased green card errors rather than reducing them, an audit by the Inspector General’s Office has found.
The most shocking “error” is buried on page 28 of the 65-page report.
Here, the nation learns that USCIS printed “potentially hundreds” of green cards with the wrong names or sent them to the wrong addresses, a dramatic increase in such mistakes since the new system was implemented in 2012.
This error “has created potential security concerns about documents that cannot be accounted for or that may have fallen into the wrong hands,” the inspector general report states.
Staffers at the FBI’s terrorist screening center stated “there was no accurate means of identifying the exact number of potentially hundreds of cards sent to incorrect addresses… They said their only option for addressing the problem of incorrect addresses was to manually send out notices with instructions on how to mail the cards back, but this was not effective,” according to the report.
The automated system was supposed to cost $536 million, but is now expected to cost $3.1 billion. It’s not only over budget but behind schedule – three years behind schedule.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, blasted USCIS, saying “this failed effort to automate the processing of immigration benefits is concerning and poses unnecessary national security risks,” the Daily Caller reported.
Johnson said the over-spending and poor performance of the new immigration processing system “put our nation at risk. With ISIS and other terrorist groups active around the world and committed to attacks on our country, our national security depends on our systems for screening visa and immigration applications working effectively.”
Even when customers asked for USCIS to correct the information, USCIS was unable to do so, the report said.
The potential fallout of such a mistake is frightening and the inspector general did not try to soft-pedal them.
“USCIS recognized the potential national security vulnerability of sending USCIS documents to unauthorized individuals who might sell or use them fraudulently for profit. The Associate Director of Field Operations acknowledged that USCIS products should go out accurately 100 percent of the time, stating that it was damaging to the public’s perception of the agency when it made this kind of mistake. This issue was especially critical because of the large volume of Immigrant Visas processed — typically approximately 500,000 each year.”
Top officials at USCIS refuted the IG report, calling it “inaccurate.” But the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth responded with a stinging rebuke in a letter to USCIS Director León Rodríguez.
“I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to express my disappointment at the tone and substance of your office’s response to the audit report, as well as audit staff’s efforts throughout this project,” Roth wrote in a letter to Rodriguez. The USCIS has “continually minimized the shortcomings of the program and resisted independent oversight.”
Roth said USCIS’s failure to implement major recommendations for fixing the new automated processing system “does not appear rational” 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.”
USCIS administers 90 types of benefits including everything from permanent resident status, also called the green card, to refugee applications and scheduling of visa background checks.
6,500 green cards issued per day
The agency employs more than 19,000 people. On an average day they process 23,000 applications for various immigration benefits; issue at least 6,500 permanent resident cards; adjudicate nearly 200 refugee applications; and naturalize 3,200 new U.S. citizens.
Much of this is done the old-fashioned way — with paper documents.
Congress has since 2005 been challenging USCIS to automate its records and it has wasted more than $500 million trying to meet that goal, according to the report. A huge chunk of that money has gone to International Business Machines, which was awarded a contract in November 2008 to serve as architect of the new electronic immigration system, also called ELIS.
Although USCIS partially deployed ELIS in 2012, to date only two of its 90 types of immigration benefits are available for online customer filing, accounting for less than 10 percent of the agency’s total workload, the auditors reported.
Attempts to convert several other benefit types to online services have been riddled with glitches and errors, the report notes. And the longer it takes, the more expensive the project becomes.
Not only was the system error prone, it was also plagued by slow processing times as employees had to flip between multiple screens and continuously refresh screen pages. Often the system will lock up or critical data will not get entered into the system correctly.
As a result, the applications entered through the new electronic system took twice as long to process as they had when done on paper, the report states. This has resulted in a huge backlog of applications.
The report estimates it will take another three years and $1 billion to complete the online automation project.
According to the audit report: “More than 20 million immigrant files, each file 1 to 6 inches thick, are stored at the National Records Center. The annual cost of shipping, storing, and handling these paper files is over $300 million each year.”