The 2016 presidential campaign debate over immigration reform has focused almost exclusively on what to do about the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country and whether to build a wall along the 2,000-mile long U.S.-Mexico border. But almost nothing is ever mentioned about the plight of the millions of other people struggling to play by the rules.
Just obtaining, filling out and filing one of nearly 100 forms required by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service -- ranging from documents for meeting residence requirements and employment authorization to asylum adjustments – can be a nightmare of paper work that takes many months if not longer to accomplish.
And after more than a decade of effort to digitize and automate the system to dispense with paper forms -- at a cost so far of more than $1 billion – the Department of Homeland Security has succeeded in making available just one government form for electronic filing: an application for renewing or replacing “green cards” that are given to immigrants to legally live and work in this country.
By placing this document on line, the government had hoped to circumvent a highly inefficient system that involves the shuttling of millions of paper application forms among offices, as The Washington Post reported on Sunday. Yet government documents revealed that many immigrants who applied online had to wait up to a year for a new green card, or never received one, according to the newspaper.
Far worse is that the overall project to transform the immigration application system from a blizzard of paper applications to a streamlined, digital filing and response system is an unmitigated disaster. It has been plagued with huge cost overruns that are likely to drive up the overall cost from an original estimate of $500 million a decade ago to $3.1 billion by the time the project is completed four years from now.
As The Post noted, the combination of incompetent planning and management by government officials and outside contractors is “putting in jeopardy” any effort to reform U.S. immigration policies, provide information and services to immigrants currently seeking citizen and detect persons who might pose a national security threat.
“You’re going on 11 years into this project, they only have one form, and we’re still a paper-based agency,” Kenneth Palinkas, the former president of a labor union representing workers at the immigration services agency, told The Post. “It’s a huge albatross around our necks.”
To give this problem some context: Companies like Google offer nearly free products that allow creation and collection of data by customizing their off the shelf form “app.” An intern with moderate supervision could publish 100 forms within a week. We would hope that the government would produce a superior product for the billions it’s spending, but given their track record, it’s doubtful.
The immigration paperwork crisis is reminiscent of the huge, one-time backlog of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where hundreds of thousands of application forms were lost or buried intentionally in cardboard boxes. Although the immigration services’ problems have received less public attention until now, they shouldn’t come as a surprise to the Obama administration and immigration reform advocates.
Almost from the beginning, the attempted shift from paper to digitized application forms in most government departments has been riddled with management and technical problems. For example, immigration services’ officials didn’t complete work on the basic plan for the new computer system for nearly three years after the first $500 million contract had been awarded to IBM, and the concept for adopting the new technology was deemed outmoded before construction of the system even began.
By 2012, it was one of the worst kept secrets at DHS that the planned computer system was hampered by hundreds of critical software defects and other glitches, according to The Post. Yet department officials decided to forge ahead with the star-crossed system, largely to respond to Obama administration pressure to get the system up and running as part of the president’s initiative to overhaul the entire immigration system.