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Immigration Reform News: USCIS Has One Single Form Online, After a Decade and $1 Billion Spent to Modernize - Report

First Posted: Nov 09, 2015 04:27 PM EST
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Immigrants becoming U.S. citizens ceremony

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The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has spent more than $1 billion and a little more than ten years in an attempt to modernize the immigration filing system, and according to a new report, progress hasn't been good. In fact, the project to digitize immigration forms has accomplished about one percent of the total job.

USICS is a large agency, with 223 offices across the world and a total of 19,000 government employees and contractors, according to the agency's numbers.

So with a total of 95 immigration forms to digitize and put online, it may come as a surprise that the agency has only managed to make one single form available for online applications, and one type of fee that immigrants can pay through the Internet, according to a Washington Post exposé published on Sunday.

And that's after 11 years working on the project, known in the agency as the "Transformation Program," which was originally supposed to be finished in 2013 and cost a half-billion dollars. Now at over $1 billion and two years over deadline, as WaPo reported, the immigration paperwork digitization project is expected to continue for four more years and reach up to $3.1 billion before it's finished.

As it stands, 94 of the immigration forms still have to be completed in paper. The USCIS processes approximately 8 million immigration applications per year, according to the International Business Times.

Since the vast majority of those applications have to be filed by paper, immigration lawyers and their frustrated clients are still stuck shipping paper documents across the country, through a labyrinthine paper-shuffling process from government office to office. If a single form is misplaced or lost during its odyssey through the immigration system, final approval can reportedly be set back by months.

As the Washington Post described the current, outdated system, "delays are legend." 

The single digitized immigration form, so far, is for the purpose of renewing or replacing a lost or stolen "green card," the document held by permanent legal residents of the U.S.

And according to government documents obtained by WaPo, even this single online green card replacement application process continues to be slow and inefficient, with many online applicants waiting up to a year to receive their new cards and some never receiving them at all. The USCIS's former deputy ombudsman Luke Bellocchi told the Washington Post that he'd handled at least 100 cases of lost applications, mostly for green card replacements, in the past few years -- describing it as "an absolute nightmare."

The Transformation Program to digitize, and thus streamline, USCIS's immigration application processes was reportedly mismanaged from the very beginning. And pressure from the Obama administration -- which, as the WaPo reported, considered the program a vital part of its plans to reform the immigration system -- didn't help.

From the start, USCIS officials reportedly took almost three years, after IBM was awarded the half-billion dollar contract, before finishing a basic plan for the computerized system. And unsurprisingly, given the pace of technology's evolution, those plans were defunct by the time the agency began to implement them.

One year away from the Transformation Program's initial deadline, in 2012, USCIS's digitization efforts were "riddled with hundreds of critical software and other defects," as WaPo put it. Feeling pressure from the administration, the agency pushed on regardless, which led to more waste and delays.

For example, at one point there were three immigration forms that reportedly had been digitized and made available online. But two of them had to be taken down, as the original system -- hardware and software, both -- eventually had to be scrapped.

"In 2012, we made some hard decisions to turn the Transformation Program around using the latest industry best practices and approaches, instead of simply scratching it and starting over,'' USCIS spokesman Shin Inouye told the Washington Post. "We took a fresh start -- a fix that required an overhaul of the development process -- from contracting to development methodology to technology.''

Inouye went on to say that the new system has been able to process about 1.2 million requests and that based on that process, USCIS was now confident it was "moving in the right direction."

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