DHS’ Massively Over-Budget Immigration Project Draws Bipartisan Scrutiny

Lawmakers are demanding answers from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Lawmakers are demanding answers from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Shutterstock.com

A House committee is launching an investigation into a Homeland Security Department initiative gone awry, looking to get answers into why a digitalization project has taken longer and cost significantly more than originally expected.

A bipartisan letter signed by leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson asked for details on why it has taken so long to put immigration forms online. The failures of the project, formerly known as the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS), were detailed in a Nextgov story earlier this year and again highlighted by a Washington Post report last week.

DHS has spent $1 billion over the last 10 years to digitize nearly 100 forms, though so far has put just one online. The project was originally expected to cost $536,000 and be completed by 2013, but is now estimated to have a $3.1 billion price tag, according to the Post. DHS does not expect to complete the project until 2019.

The Post report drew a critical response from Johnson, who said it left out the recent efforts by DHS and its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services component to right the course. Johnson conceded the original project was over budget and behind schedule, but since DHS provided a “fresh start,” it has turned a corner. He maintained the initiative is now “within cost,” though DHS has repeatedly moved the goalposts on the total budget.

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

USCIS is now working with the U.S. Digital Service to move the paper-based system online. While Congress still wants more information about what went wrong, Johnson said the program should become a model for other federal agencies.

“This is just the type of turnaround story in technology that we should be pioneering across the entire government,” Johnson said.

The oversight committee requested a briefing to “detail the delays that have prevented [DHS] from completing this project on schedule, and the reasons why costs have increased so significantly.”

The letter was signed by Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the respective chairman and ranking member of the committee, as well as leaders of two of the panel’s subcommittees. 

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