U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Digitization Strategy Assessment

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Digitization Strategy Assessment

Client: Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Enterprise Services Directorate

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the government agency within the Department of Homeland Security that oversees lawful immigration to the United States. The USCIS receives and processes benefit applications for immigrants and other aliens at a rate of approximately two million per year. The applications and other related documentation are stored in Alien Files (A-Files) which are distributed among hundreds of offices worldwide. USCIS maintains more than eighty million paper A-Files, with a typical file containing 20-150 pages of material including forms, books, newspapers, photographs, etc.  The files are used to adjudicate follow-up benefits for these aliens or their relatives, so they must be preserved and shipped upon request to USCIS or other DHS users.

USCIS has initiated several efforts since 2006 to promote the electronic digitization, storage, retrieval, and dissemination of A-Files within and across DHS components. The goal of these initiatives was to significantly reduce paper-based processes, provide effective means for sharing A-File information across DHS, reduce the need to transport A-Files between physical locations, and provide greater accountability for individual A-File records. These efforts were meant to complement the broader USCIS transformation to an on-line, mostly-paperless, application system. Despite reportedly spending more than one billion dollars on the transformation program, results have been disappointing. Looking at the complementary digitization program, as one example, the DHS Office of the Inspector General found that twice as much time was required to adjudicate an application using digitized A-Files as compared to the old paper ones.

The Inspector General findings informed a DHS review of its systems and processes and the USCIS asked HSSAI to perform a baseline study of current processes and conduct a follow-on business case analysis of various unspecified digitization alternatives.  The HSSAI team is four months into the fourteen-month project and has been executing an extensive research plan and performing some preliminary analyses. The team intends to visit a number of USCIS facilities during the course of the research and will produce two primary documents — a baseline report and a business case analysis final report that will identify, evaluate, and compare viable digitization alternatives. According to USCIS, it does not intend to digitize all existing paper A-Files, but it will continue to digitize files/forms when it is determined to be cost effective. So, these HSSAI reports will allow USCIS to better understand the return on its current digitization investment and to potentially adopt more cost-effective strategies for the future.

Counterterrorism, Borders, and Immigration, Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute Projects