DHS defends ‘reboot’ of online immigration system

DHS defends ‘reboot’ of online immigration system
© Greg Nash

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chief is arguing that his agency is using the techniques of major technology companies to turn around its plan to transfer all immigration applications online, an undertaking that is years past due and billions of dollars over budget. 

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a strong defense of the 2006 “Transformation Program” on Wednesday after The Washington Post reported that only one of about 100 application forms is available online and only one of 40 fees can be paid online. 

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Johnson did not contest any of the facts in the Post article but said “the story fails to recognize” the progress the agency has made since 2012 to turn the program around. 

“This is the same approach used in leading technology companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Etsy, and large companies like Target, Nordstrom, Disney, and Capital One,” Johnson said. 

The “reboot” started in 2012. Still, only one application — to renew or replace a green card — can be processed online. Similarly, only one fee — paid by lawful permanent residents immigrating to the country — can be paid online.   

Johnson said that the single form accounts for 16 percent of all immigration processing. More forms will be added to the online portal by the end of 2016, he said, which are expected to account for 41 percent of all filings. 

Johnson acknowledged the past delays and budget concerns. 

IBM was the sole contractor when the project started, and the Post story notes that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) blamed the government for shoddy planning, while agency officials blamed IBM for future failures. 

The department, which houses U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has since ended its relationship with IBM and moved to multiple contractors. It also transitioned to open-sourced software and is developing software in small “agile” increments, instead of longer sequential phases. 

“Rather than deem the original program ‘too big to fail’ and continue further down the wrong path, DHS made the hard decision to fundamentally reboot the program around the latest industry best practices and approaches,” Johnson said. “We pulled the plug on the original program, phased out the contractor, and moved to a different approach.”

The Post reported that the program was pushed along years ago despite setbacks because of President Obama’s reelection and push for immigration reform, which would have unleashed a spate of new applicants who would have benefited from a streamlined system.

The move online is now expected to be completed in March 2019 and cost $3.1 billion. According to the GAO, that is four years past the initial deadline and $1 billion over budget. 

As recently as this May, the GAO recommended that the department improve governance and oversight of the program to make sure it keeps with the updated timeline and budget.