December 15, 2005 4:00 AM PST
Aging computers hobble Homeland Security
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Referring to the August crash that left travelers waiting in line, Homeland Security Department spokesman Jarrod Agen said that some problems are inevitable. "They have computer glitches from time to time due to the complexity of the system, and they're not a frequent thing, but they do happen on occasion, and that was one instance of it." Agen said that contrary to some initial reports, there was no evidence it was caused by a virus.
Plans for change
The USCIS didn't set up its own centralized information technology office until March 2004, a year after Homeland Security was formed. It now says it has a multiyear "IT Transformation Strategy"--but officials have refused to disclose the cost or the anticipated timetable.
Nor is a single document publicly available. Instead, the plans are scattered around in multiple documents, such as a "mission needs" statement, presentations, white papers, and so on, spokesperson Strassberger said. The bureau is currently in the process of awarding contracts and cannot discuss the details, he said.
Some attempts at modernization have been made. It's now possible, for instance, for immigration applicants to file nine types of forms electronically and to check their status online. But because the e-filing system can't talk to any of the existing case management systems that employees use, those employees must manually retype those forms into the appropriate database.
In November, the department completed a "refresh" of workstations in its California service center, installing more than 1,200 new workstations, printers and monitors, and "modernizing and standardizing" its network, according to a December bureau newsletter. Similar updates are scheduled for several more offices in 2006.
Boxes of files ready for shipment
to National Records Center
Robert Divine, the bureau's acting deputy director, said the organization is committed to making the fixes, but it can't do so without a big budget increase.
Because most of the bureau's revenue comes from application fees, not from the federal government's pockets, "the type of significant, up-front funding that will be required for fully modernizing information technology is not clearly within USCIS' means," Divine said in a September letter to the Department of Homeland Security's assistant inspector general for information technology.
Problems have also plagued computers used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. Since 2003, schools and student-exchange programs have been required to use a Internet-based tool known as the Foreign Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to store and track personal information about foreign students before, during and after their stay in the United States.
University administrators testifying before a congressional committee have complained that SEVIS frequently lost data, could not handle large batches of information submitted at once, did not provide real-time access to records. The system would sometimes result in documents--many of a confidential nature--inexplicably being printed out on computers at completely different schools.
In its most recent evaluation of SEVIS, published in March, the Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the system is now receiving fewer gripes from educational organizations. GAO said that's partly due to better help desk staffing and training, and new software releases. However, ICE has not resolved all of the system's glitches, it said.
Meanwhile, immigrants like Baklenov continue to wait for results. "We're trying to do as much as we could thru the phone and through talking to our friends in the Czech Republic and asking them to help," he said, referring to his grandmother. "She's still in the hospital and we're trying to do the best for her--from overseas, unfortunately."
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