Aging computers hobble Homeland Security

Agency grapples with crashes and incompatible computers as it struggles to reshuffle former INS functions.

Thousands of airline passengers unexpectedly found themselves stranded in line at U.S. border checkpoints in August, after a Department of Homeland Security computer crashed.

At Miami International, some 4,500 frustrated travelers waited in cramped conditions. Airport staff handed out bottles of water and coloring books with crayons for children during the wait for the computer, which checks identities, to come back up.

"This incident was extraordinary," said Greg Chin, an airport spokesman. "In other cases when the computers have been down, it has only been for less than half an hour."

Index cards
Index cards of biographical data

The crash shuttered the government's main immigration database in Virginia, affecting scores of border entry points. The shutdown highlights the computer problems that the Homeland Security Department is grappling with, as it struggles to reshuffle myriad functions once performed by the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It has been a daunting task. Aging, incompatible systems and outdated processes have contributed to a backlog of approximately 1 million people waiting for a decision from the department's Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau. Computer problems at its Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau caused a snafu in which student visa holders were jailed overnight or barred from entering the United States.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services's systems have come in for particular criticism from outside analysts and government auditors, who say these are simply not up to the task of serving the public, especially when coupled with a continuing reliance on paper forms. In some cases, for instance, information typed into one computer must be manually retyped into a second or third.

"All filings are paper-based, which means that everything you submit has to be keyed into the computer, which of course opens up the additional possibility of error, slows the process down and prevents some processes from being automated," said Crystal Williams, deputy director for programs at the .

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The USCIS bureau has spent $280 million over the last two years as part of its "backlog initiative" to reduce the number of outstanding cases, but most of that has gone to hire temporary employees. Less than two percent, or $4.5 million, was devoted to computer upgrades. (The Department of Homeland Security's overall budget is $30.8 billion for fiscal year 2006.)

One problem is that applications for different types of immigration status are saved in separate records. These aren't interlinked, which means an application for a H1-B visa is not tied to the same person's application for a green card--causing more paperwork and delays, until the two records can be matched by hand.

Other procedures are equally inefficient. "Heaven forbid if an attorney should change their address," Williams said. "They have to send a change of address for every separate case they've got pending. (Once) I had between 500 and 1,000 cases pending at one time."

Data stumbling blocks
The holdups can be attributed in part to the Homeland Security Department's antiquated computer systems. The agency's mainframes do not share data and are accessible only by some offices. An upgrade to Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system failed because of application incompatibilities, which meant one division had to undertake a cumbersome reversion back to Windows 95.

In the case of the immigration bureau, there has never been a centralized electronic method for managing the more than 7 million applications that stream each year into 250 USCIS offices scattered across the country and abroad.

Homeland Security immigration cases

Instead, the bureau's outposts rely on about a dozen different systems designed to enter, store and track more than 50 types of forms that cover everything from citizenship applications to student and worker visas and adoptions.

Not one of the systems can talk with another, according to government reports, and not all offices are equipped to log into the systems they need to update records.

Even the bureau's two primary case-management systems, called CLAIMS 3 and CLAIMS 4, are accessible only to certain staff at certain offices. These rely on proprietary software developed by a string of contractors in the early 1990s, "do not share data, and are extremely expensive to modify," the ombudsman concluded. (CLAIMS stands for Computer Linked Application Information Management System.)

CLAIMS 3, for instance, runs on both client-server and mainframe platforms, and USCIS service centers across the country independently use six different versions of the system. On a nightly basis, employees upload the information they've entered that day into a central CLAIMS 3 mainframe--which essentially means that changes to files aren't available until the next day.

All that suggests that a real dent in the USCIS backlog--which peaked at 3.8 million cases in January 2004 and has now settled at around 1 million--is unlikely to occur until the immigration bureau overhauls its geographically dispersed, often incompatible case-management processes.

"Despite repeated assessments and attempts to modernize, USCIS' processing of immigration benefits continues to be inefficient, hindering its ability to effectively carry out its mission," concluded a 56-page report (click for PDF) released this fall by the office of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner, who is responsible for investigating the department's 22 umbrella agencies.

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