Chambers split over money to digitize visitor records

Citizenship and Immigration Services has been plagued by technical problems in processing enormous amounts of data and paperwork.

The push to digitize citizenship and immigration records will be an issue this fall when House and Senate lawmakers debate the budget for the Homeland Security Department.

The House in May voted to provide $40 million for the effort. The money is part of a $30.8 billion spending measure for Homeland Security in fiscal 2006, which includes $1.89 billion for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

The bill would allocate $40 million more for the agency than President Bush requested. House lawmakers said they allocated the extra $40 million for immigration officials to continue to "digitize the active alien files that are currently handled in paper form, and continuation of digitizing old records." But the Senate's version of the bill does not include the money.

Congress provided $20 million for the initiative last year. "The intensive administrative workload and documentation associated with the mission of CIS makes the agency ideally suited to apply technology and considerably improve its efficiency and productivity," House appropriators said in a report on the fiscal 2006 measure.

While Senate appropriators did not specifically address the lack of funding for digitizing immigration records, New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, repeatedly has said his panel cut funding from programs across the department to direct more money toward bolstering border security and countering weapons of mass destruction.

CIS, which was part of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), is responsible for processing all immigrant and non-immigrant paperwork for U.S. visitors.

The agency has been plagued by technical problems in processing enormous amounts of data and paperwork. The backlog of pending immigration applications dates back nearly a year at some immigration offices and nearly two years at others, according to Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, who attempted twice, but failed, to increase funding for CIS when the House debated the department's spending measure.

In 2003, 7.1 million individuals filed paperwork for legal immigrant status. The agency has said its goal is to have all applications processed in six months by next year.

The Senate and House appropriators directed the agency to spend $80 million on reducing its backlog next year -- the same amount Bush requested.