Immigration to Go Paperless

Credit: Washington Post

Agency Plans Electronic Overhaul of Case-Management System

The Bush administration has launched a major overhaul of the nation's immigration services agency, selecting an industry consortium led by IBM to reinvent how the government handles about 7 million applications each year for visas, citizenship and approval to work in the United States, officials announced yesterday.

If successful, the five-year, $500 million effort to convert U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services case-management system from paper-based to electronic could reduce backlogs and processing delays by at least 20 percent, and possibly more than 50 percent, people close to the project said. Those problems have long frustrated new Americans and other immigrants.

The new system would allow government agencies, from the Border Patrol to the FBI to the Labor Dep artment, to access immigration records faster and more accurately. In combination with initiatives to link digital fingerprint scans to20unique identification numbers, it would create a lifelong digital record for applicants. It also would eliminate the need for time- and labor-intensive filing and refiling of paper forms, which are stored at 200 locations in 70 million manila file folders.

Known internally as the transformation initiative, the long-awaited and much-delayed effort is considered a cornerstone of any broader effort to fix an immigration system considered one of the most broken bureaucracies in the federal government.

If Congress were to overhaul immigration laws, by creating a guest-worker program or allowing illegal immigrants to gain legal status, for example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) expects it would have to make even greater changes. The agency suggested to potential contractors during last year's immigration debate that $3.5 billion worth of work might be required, officials said.
 
The case-management system "is going to transform the way USCIS and its predecessors have done business for the last 50 years, and the success or failure of this venture=2 0will determine the effectiveness" of any future immigration overhaul, said Prakash Khatri, a homeland security consultant at KPK G lobal Solutions. Khatri served as the immigration agency's ombudsman for the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 through February of this year.

Acting USCIS Director Jonathan "Jock" Scharfen announced that International Business Machines Corp. was selected over rivals CSC and Accentureto serve as a "solutions architect" for the $2.6 billion-a-year agency, which employs 10,700 government workers and 8,000 contractors at 200 locations nationwide.

The contract, awarded this week and the largest federal homeland security bid on the market, includes a $14.5 million, 90-day assessment period with options over five years worth $491.1 million.

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