December 15, 2005 4:00 AM PST
Aging computers hobble Homeland Security
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A decade has elapsed since the last bureauwide upgrade of IT equipment. Some offices have adopted the practice of performing haphazard changes when budget money is left over, Skinner said, leading to a confusing patchwork of hardware and software across the bureau.
In his most recent annual report to Congress, Prakash Khatri, the immigration bureau's ombudsman, warned the Homeland Security Department's outdated technological infrastructure meant that "customer service is compromised." Khatri acts as a representative for people who have encountered problems.
The agency acknowledges that its computer systems remain a daunting obstacle. "The state of USCIS' current systems prevents it from implementing key initiatives, and has only allowed for incremental change," Tarrazzia Martin, the chief information officer for U.S. Customs and Immigration (USCIS), wrote in an e-mail interview with CNET News.com.
Inefficiencies yield delays, frustrations
Oleg Baklenov knows firsthand how paperwork delays by the USCIS can roil a technology worker's family life.
Baklenov, a 34-year-old Russian electrical engineer who came to the U.S. 11 years ago to earn his doctoral degree, currently has a visa that permits him to work for a company in Greensboro, N.C.
National Records Center in Lee's
Three years ago, he applied for what's commonly known as a green card, a form of immigration status that would permit him to become a permanent resident and seek citizenship. But a technical difficulty in submitting his name to the FBI for a mandatory criminal background check has delayed the process, he said.
People with worker visas have to file extra paperwork--which can take several months to process--to leave and re-enter the United States. Confident that his green-card application would be processed, Baklenov decided not to undertake the task of submitting those additional forms.
But now his ailing grandmother has been admitted to a Czech hospital, and the unexpected delay has effectively barred Baklenov from leaving the country to visit her. "The system will be more efficient if one computer system can communicate with different agencies and request all the checks that they need," said Baklenov, who is representing himself in a federal lawsuit filed in North Carolina, but is hoping for an out-of-court resolution.
William Strassberger, a USCIS spokesperson, said he's not sure what caused Baklenov's problems and said the agency was still waiting for the security check. "If he wanted to make a request for advance parole for emergency medical reasons on behalf of his grandmother, it should be possible to do," Strassberger said. "Usually, we recommend submitting an application four weeks ahead of time, but if it's a situation where it requires urgent travel, it's possible to do that."
Barriers to progress
The situation is complicated by the ripple effects of the federal law creating the Department of Homeland Security,
Border patrol and customs agents formed the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit, while the bureaucracy for processing immigration-related requests was renamed
Michael Garcia, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, has likened the integration process to "trying to change the engine in an airplane in mid-flight." In testimony to the Senate in March, Garcia said: "We have had to build a new agency almost from the ground up--bringing together divisions from four separate agencies into a single functioning unit, and melding the cultures and missions of various units into a unified whole."
Large, distributed government systems are too often victims of poor planning, said Peter Neumann, a principal scientist in the computer science lab at SRI International, a not-for-profit research institute.
"What is needed is a set of requirements that really makes sense in the first place and an architecture that is capable of satisfying those requirements--a very serious software engineering discipline to ensure a system is not only going to meet those requirements but be evolvable over time," said Neumann, who has served on technical advisory committees for the IRS and the Government Accountability Office.
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