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Slower than paperwork: DHS watchdog says billion-dollar electronic immigration system screwed

Slower than paperwork: DHS watchdog says billion-dollar electronic immigration system screwed
Although it’s electronic and cost almost $2 billion dollars to develop, a new automated system for processing immigration forms takes twice as long as filing applications by hand, according to a Department of Homeland Security internal watchdog.

Perhaps the story of the government’s failed $1.7 billion Electronic Immigration System — or ELIS - best sums up the adage, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’

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Started six years ago under a $536,000 contract, the project called Transformation fizzled over a host of perplexities, not least of all mind-boggling electronic bureaucracy just to enter the system.

"Immigration services officers take longer to adjudicate in ELIS in part because of the estimated 100 to 150 clicks required to move among sublevels and open documents to complete the process," Richard Harsche, acting assistant inspector general for the DHS Office of IT Audits, said in a newly released report.

ELIS — the abbreviation is a nod to the historic immigration center at Ellis Island — also contains no tabs or highlighting features, and searches fail to give usable results, he said.

In one test of the system, employees were able to complete 2.16 cases per hour manually as compared with just 0.86 cases using the problem-plagued ELIS, which is being financed through immigration application fees.

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

"Instead of improved efficiency, time studies conducted by service centers show that adjudicating on paper is at least two times faster than adjudicating in ELIS," Harsche said.

Officials at DHS US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which operates the system, say they made changes in subsequent releases of ELIS, including reducing the number of clicks required to navigate the labyrinthine system.

However, officials fear they are bound by the high number of contributing software to the project.

"USCIS has been limited in its ability to make changes to ELIS because of challenges with the existing architecture," Harsche said. "The architecture consists of 29 commercial software products, which are difficult to integrate."

Most changes,like adjusting the interface to make it more intuitive, will be implemented as part of the program’s transition to a more flexible architecture. The start of development in the new architecture began in October 2013,” the report added.

By the end of 2014, a switchover to ELIS2 version is scheduled.

USCIS recently awarded a 2-year contract which potentially costs $58 million according to nextgov.com website to four vendors in hopes of finishing the automated system. The agency intends to introduce the project in six-month software release cycles to identify problems in the early stages.