DHS IG issues management alert on problematic Electronic Immigration System

The electronic system the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services used in naturalization cases is so riddled with network problems and security concerns, the Homeland Security Department’s watchdog issued a mid-audit management warning to prevent it from being used again.

USCIS previously relied on the Electronic Immigration System to process immigrant naturalization and benefits, but after two audits in 2016 highlighted problems with reliability of background checks and consistency of case information, UCIS stopped using ELIS in August in favor of an older system for applications.

“Recently, we learned of an impending decision by USCIS leadership to return to ELIS processing in late January 2017,” said DHS’ Office of Inspector General, in a Jan. 19 memo to USCIS Director Leon Rodriquez. “We are concerned about the feasibility and risk of such a decision given all the ELIS problems that remain unresolved.”

USCIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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“Rather than waiting several months to issue a report when the ongoing audit is completed, the OIG is taking the extraordinary step of elevating this urgent issue to USCIS leadership early so that immediate corrective action can be taken,” DHS Inspector General John Roth said in a statement.

Roth’s statement recalled two ELIS audits, one in March 2016 and another in November.

“The March 2016 audit … identified numerous deficiencies in system capabilities and problems with interfaces that negatively affected productivity,” he said. “The November 2016 audit … indicated that nearly 20,000 Green Cards had been issued in error, primarily due to ELIS technical and functional deficiencies.”

Among the problems with ELIS, is that the system allowed applications to move forward for processing without properly being vetted.

When checking an applicant’s background, USCIS workers are required to compare biographical information with Custom and Border Protection’s TECS system and the FBI’s name check database.

“According to Field Operations Directorate officials, approximately 175 applicants were granted citizenship as of January 11, 2017 before the problem was detected and USCIS began redoing the name checks to ensure they were all completed correctly,” the alert stated. “Without sufficient vetting, immigrants could potentially be granted U.S. citizenship although they are ineligible or pose national security threats.”

ELIS also didn’t consistently update the USCIS Central Index System with final immigrant status, and field officers reported that they could not print naturalization certificates directly through ELIS. Even then, sometimes the final printed certificates included spelling errors or left out important data like pictures or country of origin, which made them invalid.

The system also had frequent network outages, the IG reported, and a lack of a contingency plan made it hard to maintain continuity of operations.

According to the memo, roughly 250,000 cases that started in ELIS had to be processed and finished in another system after the ELIS system was shuttered in August, but less than 10 percent of them have been completed.

Roth’s office recommended that before USCIS reinstate ELIS, it fix the problems related to background and security, inconsistencies and printing problems, and also perform a risk-based analysis on the unresolved ELIS technical issues to make sure “all system improvement decisions are based on potential agency operational impact and risk to public safety.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sits on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, issued a statement saying she would be asking DHS for information about the ELIS contract.

“U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for a computer program that’s simply not working — and if it’s not corrected it could endanger our national security,” she said.

Mark Schwartz, USCIS chief information officer, told Tom Temin on the Federal Drive during enterprise IT theme month program last March that the ELIS system was the only practical way to consolidate all of the agency’s data.

ELIS is an intentional reference to Ellis Island, the symbolic center of U.S. immigration. It’s one of the first programs to which Schwartz applied a continuous delivery model.