U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas.

U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. Customs and Border Protection

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In 2020, We’ll Have Digitized Immigration. Until Then, We Have JAG Lawyers

An effort to shrink the case backlog hobbling the immigration system is just getting started.

Military lawyers are headed to the U.S.-Mexico border to help with a daunting task: reducing the enormous backlog of immigration cases that are clogging the system and contributing to the chaotic situation there. The JAGs won’t have much in the way of information technology to help them; the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is just starting a two-year effort to digitize its records.

Recent estimates put the backlog at more than 700,000 cases; it takes an average of more than 600 days to have a case read by one of 312 specialized judges. On Wednesday, the Defense Department announced that it would send 21 military lawyers to see what they could do to help.

During the Obama administration, immigrants who weren’t considered priorities for deportation were often granted stays of a year for agreeing to show up before an immigration judge. President Trump changed that soon after taking office, issuing an executive order that made it easier to deport virtually anyone living in the country illegally. With that order, Trump tuned misdemeanors — crossing illegally into the United States for the first time is a misdemeanor offense — into crimes worthy of deportation. That overwhelmed the system and the backlog started to grow.

Digitizing immigration is one of the “top priorities” of USCIS, said Robert Brown, a developer in the agency’s infrastructure enterprise division. “We are digitizing a lot of Truman-era processes that exist within CIS,” Brown said at the AWS Public Sector Summit on Wednesday. The effort is aimed at reducing the backlog, he said. “So far, we’ve done our first program planning session. We had 100 different technologists, both federal and contractors, as well as business and product owners.”

It’s not the first time the government has tried to digitize immigration services. Similar efforts under the Obama administration brought delays and cost overruns without the promised efficiency improvements.

Brown said his group has yet to spend a dime; they’re still figuring out what to buy and build and what to tear down. They hope commercial cloud providers will help the government succeed where it had previously failed.

A big part of the problem is organizational; too many contracts went to small projects that don’t benefit the larger whole. “It’s a very siloed and money-driven-down-to-contracts structure. Silos exist because the money [is] delivered based on what that mission, sub-mission, or sub-sub mission,” he said.

So how do you digitize a Truman-era process? “We are...trying to leverage a lot of core technology from cloud providers and data analytics,” said Brown. That includes natural language processing and optical character recognition — in essence, getting software to read many of the forms now processed by humans.

Brown is also interested in applying “robotic process automation”: using software to identify tasks that can be automated. “We’re trying to move to 80 percent automatic processing,” he said. This, too, can be a challenge, since some robotic processing might be duplicative across facilities and data centers. Brown said “proper orchestration” and transparent workload sharing would keep software bots from doing the same thing.

But perhaps the biggest challenge will be getting everybody who uses CIS’s services and website —a group that includes immigration lawyers, ICE deportation officers, judges and immigrants themselves—to trust the new system. And it will certainly be controversial. Given ICE’s Trump-era effort to hunt down and deport all undocumented residents, the agency will no doubt try to put the new system to use.