U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is responsible for deciding who can immigrate to the U.S. and processing their applications for green cards and for citizenship, hasn’t yet discovered the modern wonder of computers. Its records comprise about 55 million paper-based files housed at the National Records Center in Lee’s Summit, Mo., and attempts to drag the bureau kicking and screaming into the 20th century — nevermind the 21st — are at risk of failure, according to a government audit.
People who want to immigrate to the U.S. have to wade through a complex bureaucracy made all the more fragile by its complete reliance on paper forms, some 50 of them, and hope that nowhere in the years-long process does any piece of paper get lost. Frequently the paperwork does get lost, and the immigrant is screwed.
These forms comprise the alien files, or A-files, which eventually wind up in cold storage in Lee’s Summit. It’s an amazing sight: files upon files upon files, as far as the eye can see in every direction. USCIS began a pilot project, known as the Integrated Digitization Document Management Program, to attempt to scan documents into computers so they could be more readily accessed. The project is now expected to cost $190 million over eight years, and after already blowing $20 million on who knows what, USCIS has zilch to show for it.
“In particular, it has not yet developed a plan governing how it will manage this program and the contractors working on it, and it has not yet developed a plan for measuring and evaluating the results of a pilot test of a document scanning and storage capability. According to USCIS officials, these plans do not exist because the program is just getting started. Nonetheless, USCIS has already awarded, or plans to award, contracts totaling more than $20 million for this pilot. In addition, USCIS officials told us they do not yet know which of the roughly 50 types of A-Files-related forms will be scanned as part of the program,” according to a Government Accountability Office report to Congress (PDF) made public this month.
It gets better. The plan could ultimately cost as much as $550 million if all immigration paperwork was digitized. But the plan itself is currently being re-evaluated as USCIS is currently in the middle of a multi-year IT Transformation Program to attempt to eliminate “duplicative, nonintegrated, and inefficient data systems that have limited information sharing,” according to the GAO and a Homeland Security inspector general report (PDF) on the program.
In the meantime, USCIS continues to pour money into paperwork. It spends $13 million a year just to move the paperwork from place to place. And one single service center spends more than $400,000 a year for copiers and copy paper. We’re all paying for immigrants who attempt to play by the rules — mountains of them — to be given a hard time whenever one piece of paper isn’t just perfect. And you wonder why millions of people don’t even bother? This process must be significantly streamlined before people can start taking legal immigration seriously.