A $3.1 Billion Digital System That Threatens National Security Is Shut Down
Policy + Politics

A $3.1 Billion Digital System That Threatens National Security Is Shut Down

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

For now, at least, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security has prevailed in shuttering a costly automated immigration naturalization processing system that he found has compromised national security.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ new Electronic Immigration System, ELIS, was supposed to speed up the cumbersome, complex and manual system for processing immigrants seeking legal status after 11 years of development and $3.1 billion of government spending. A total of approximately 240,000 citizenship and naturalization “N-400 forms” were fed into ELIS between April and August 2016.  

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But as DHS Inspector General John Roth documented in a report last November, the presumed state-of-the-art computer system had to be shut down because of a spate of technical and design problems that led to frequent power outages, lost casework, the inability of ELIS to access or add information to existing digital platforms, and even mistaken cancelations of applicants’ hearing dates.

Worst of all, ELIS was so highly flawed that it granted citizenship or legal status to people who “pose national security threats,” Roth said. Not only could ineligible immigrants be approved, he discovered, but immigration officials often didn’t know if they had a criminal record or ties to terrorism.

In a stunning breach of security, ELIS had erroneously issued nearly 20,000 green cards, granting legal status to live and work in the U.S. to people who had not been properly vetted, according to the inspector general.

Roth said he had received assurances from USCIS that it would continue to mothball the pricey computer system in favor of more traditional, manual paper shuffling until the multitude of problems had been ironed out. But late last week, he sounded an alarm after learning that Leon Rodriguez, Director of USCIS, intended to resume operation of ELIS before all the kinks were worked out.

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Roth was furious because he had issued multiple warnings over many months to Rodriguez who had not only ignored Roth’s recommendation but denied the problem, according to a report in NextGov. In effect, Roth issued a cease and desist order to keep USCIS from bringing ELIS back online.

Late Thursday, a spokesperson for USCIS told The Fiscal Times that his organization had backed away from any plans to reboot ELIS late this month until all of the technical problems had been ironed out.

“USCIS reverted to using its legacy system to process naturalization applications in August 2016 while appropriate steps were taken to correct deficiencies identified within the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS),” said Daniel Cosgrove, the spokesperson, in an email. “All applications for naturalization received by USCIS are being adjudicated. USCIS will not return to processing new naturalization applications in ELIS until these issues are fully addressed.” 

The USCIS statement didn’t address Roth’s concerns that tens of thousands of green cards had been issued to applicants without proper vetting.