US gov't: Immigration agency lacks IT focus for project

An eight-year, US$190 million immigration record digitization and storage project by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) is in danger of failing because millions of dollars have been set aside for the effort before the project's goals and scope have even been fully defined.

That's the conclusion of a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about IT practices undertaken by USCIS, which wants to digitize more than 55 million paper-based immigration case files to make them easier to use, store and transfer to other federal agencies and law enforcement authorities. (

In its report, the GAO said that USCIS "has not developed a plan governing how it will manage this program and its contractors, and it has not developed an evaluation plan for its ongoing digitization concept of operations pilot test, even though it has awarded or plans to award contracts totaling about $20 million for this project."

The GAO report also criticizes the agency because it has not yet identified exactly which of its more than 50 types of forms in the alien immigration files, called A-Files, will be scanned and stored -- even as the program is being created. "Without a defined scope and adequate planning, this program is at risk of falling short of expectations," the report states.

The USCIS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, uses the A-Files in 89 of its 250 offices across the country to grant or deny immigration-related benefits, capture status changes for non-citizens, prosecute immigrants who violate immigration laws and to provide a document chain of custody for enforcement, according to the GAO report. The paper-based records, some of which include hundreds of pages of documents, must be kept for 75 years. Maintaining the huge number of files costs more than $400,000 in paper and copying machines for each USCIS service center annually, while the agency spends another $13 million a year to ship files back and forth between offices. To cut these costs, the agency wants to digitize the records so they can be transferred between agencies electronically and stored more easily.

Another problem cited by USCIS is that its existing IT systems are often not integrated and don't offer wide information-sharing capabilities, resulting in data integrity and reliability concerns. Users of the files may need to access more than a dozen different systems using up to 17 unique passwords, making the process of gathering information difficult and time consuming.