Aging computers hobble Homeland Security

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

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
9 min read
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 Aging, incompatible systems and outdated processes have contributed to a backlog of approximately 1 million people waiting for a decision from the department's Citizenship and Immigration Services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 American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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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.

A decade has elapsed since the last bureauwide upgrade of IT equipment. Some offices have adopted the practice of performing haphazard changes when budget money is left over, Skinner said, leading to a confusing patchwork of hardware and software across the bureau.

In his most recent annual report to Congress, Prakash Khatri, the immigration bureau's ombudsman, warned the Homeland Security Department's outdated technological infrastructure meant that "customer service is compromised." Khatri acts as a representative for people who have encountered problems.

The agency acknowledges that its computer systems remain a daunting obstacle. "The state of USCIS' current systems prevents it from implementing key initiatives, and has only allowed for incremental change," Tarrazzia Martin, the chief information officer for U.S. Customs and Immigration (USCIS), wrote in an e-mail interview with CNET News.com.

Inefficiencies yield delays, frustrations
Oleg Baklenov knows firsthand how paperwork delays by the USCIS can roil a technology worker's family life.

Baklenov, a 34-year-old Russian electrical engineer who came to the U.S. 11 years ago to earn his doctoral degree, currently has a visa that permits him to work for a company in Greensboro, N.C.

National Records Center
National Records Center in Lee's
Summit, Missouri

Three years ago, he applied for what's commonly known as a green card, a form of immigration status that would permit him to become a permanent resident and seek citizenship. But a technical difficulty in submitting his name to the FBI for a mandatory criminal background check has delayed the process, he said.

People with worker visas have to file extra paperwork--which can take several months to process--to leave and re-enter the United States. Confident that his green-card application would be processed, Baklenov decided not to undertake the task of submitting those additional forms.

But now his ailing grandmother has been admitted to a Czech hospital, and the unexpected delay has effectively barred Baklenov from leaving the country to visit her. "The system will be more efficient if one computer system can communicate with different agencies and request all the checks that they need," said Baklenov, who is representing himself in a federal lawsuit filed in North Carolina, but is hoping for an out-of-court resolution.

William Strassberger, a USCIS spokesperson, said he's not sure what caused Baklenov's problems and said the agency was still waiting for the security check. "If he wanted to make a request for advance parole for emergency medical reasons on behalf of his grandmother, it should be possible to do," Strassberger said. "Usually, we recommend submitting an application four weeks ahead of time, but if it's a situation where it requires urgent travel, it's possible to do that."

Barriers to progress
The situation is complicated by the ripple effects of the federal law creating the Department of Homeland Security, signed by President Bush in 2002, which carved the former Immigration and Naturalization Service into three slices.

Border patrol and customs agents formed the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit, while the bureaucracy for processing immigration-related requests was renamed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The similarly named U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division now includes former INS "detention and removal" agents, federal air marshals and the Federal Protective Service.

Michael Garcia, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, has likened the integration process to "trying to change the engine in an airplane in mid-flight." In testimony to the Senate in March, Garcia said: "We have had to build a new agency almost from the ground up--bringing together divisions from four separate agencies into a single functioning unit, and melding the cultures and missions of various units into a unified whole."

Large, distributed government systems are too often victims of poor planning, said Peter Neumann, a principal scientist in the computer science lab at SRI International, a not-for-profit research institute.

"What is needed is a set of requirements that really makes sense in the first place and an architecture that is capable of satisfying those requirements--a very serious software engineering discipline to ensure a system is not only going to meet those requirements but be evolvable over time," said Neumann, who has served on technical advisory committees for the IRS and the Government Accountability Office.

Referring to the August crash that left travelers waiting in line, Homeland Security Department spokesman Jarrod Agen said that some problems are inevitable. "They have computer glitches from time to time due to the complexity of the system, and they're not a frequent thing, but they do happen on occasion, and that was one instance of it." Agen said that contrary to some initial reports, there was no evidence it was caused by a virus.

Plans for change
The USCIS didn't set up its own centralized information technology office until March 2004, a year after Homeland Security was formed. It now says it has a multiyear "IT Transformation Strategy"--but officials have refused to disclose the cost or the anticipated timetable.

Nor is a single document publicly available. Instead, the plans are scattered around in multiple documents, such as a "mission needs" statement, presentations, white papers, and so on, spokesperson Strassberger said. The bureau is currently in the process of awarding contracts and cannot discuss the details, he said.

Some attempts at modernization have been made. It's now possible, for instance, for immigration applicants to file nine types of forms electronically and to check their status online. But because the e-filing system can't talk to any of the existing case management systems that employees use, those employees must manually retype those forms into the appropriate database.

In November, the department completed a "refresh" of workstations in its California service center, installing more than 1,200 new workstations, printers and monitors, and "modernizing and standardizing" its network, according to a December bureau newsletter. Similar updates are scheduled for several more offices in 2006.

Boxes of files
Boxes of files ready for shipment
to National Records Center

Robert Divine, the bureau's acting deputy director, said the organization is committed to making the fixes, but it can't do so without a big budget increase.

Because most of the bureau's revenue comes from application fees, not from the federal government's pockets, "the type of significant, up-front funding that will be required for fully modernizing information technology is not clearly within USCIS' means," Divine said in a September letter to the Department of Homeland Security's assistant inspector general for information technology.

Problems have also plagued computers used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. Since 2003, schools and student-exchange programs have been required to use a Internet-based tool known as the Foreign Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to store and track personal information about foreign students before, during and after their stay in the United States.

University administrators testifying before a congressional committee have complained that SEVIS frequently lost data, could not handle large batches of information submitted at once, did not provide real-time access to records. The system would sometimes result in documents--many of a confidential nature--inexplicably being printed out on computers at completely different schools.

In its most recent evaluation of SEVIS, published in March, the Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the system is now receiving fewer gripes from educational organizations. GAO said that's partly due to better help desk staffing and training, and new software releases. However, ICE has not resolved all of the system's glitches, it said.

Meanwhile, immigrants like Baklenov continue to wait for results. "We're trying to do as much as we could thru the phone and through talking to our friends in the Czech Republic and asking them to help," he said, referring to his grandmother. "She's still in the hospital and we're trying to do the best for her--from overseas, unfortunately."