Fragmented, disorganized IT systems thwart feds ability to track visas

DHS OIG says ineffective IT process has contributed to a backlog of more than 1.2 million visa overstay cases.

OIG-generated based on DHS data

The technology issues involved in supporting about 27 distinct DHS information systems and databases hinder the effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track people who overstay their visas.

That was the chief conclusion of a scathing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the status of ICE’s ability to track visa overstays.

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According to the OIG, Visa holders are required to leave the United States on or before the designated admit until date, which ranges in time depending on the specific visa classification. When a nonimmigrant visitor is admitted to the country under a specific nonimmigrant category but exceeds the authorized period of admission, the visitor becomes an “overstay.” DHS identifies individuals as overstays primarily by electronically matching records of visitor entry to and exit from the United States in the Arrival and Departure Information System.

With the current system however, ICE personnel need to check multiple individual systems to accurately determine an individual’s overstay status. For example, Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU) analysts at ICE headquarters relied on approximately 17 systems, including 13 DHS and 4 external systems and databases. ICE personnel in the field used as many as 18 distinct DHS systems and databases, as well as approximately 5 external systems, to conduct their investigations, the OIG stated.

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“ICE relies on IT systems that lack integration and information-sharing capabilities, forcing ICE personnel to laboriously piece together vital information from up to 27 distinct DHS information systems and databases to accurately determine an individual’s overstay status. As a result, it may take months for ICE to determine a visa holder’s status and whether that person may pose a national security threat. This inefficient process has contributed to a backlog of more than 1.2 million visa overstay cases,” the report stated.

Some of these systems and databases were “stove-piped” and did not electronically share information, resulting in numerous inefficiencies, the OIG wrote.

“Further complicating ICE’s efforts to track visa overstays is DHS’ lack of a comprehensive biometric exit system at U.S. ports of departure to capture information on nonimmigrant visitors who exit the United States. In the absence of such a system, ICE is forced to rely on third-party departure data, such as commercial carrier passenger manifests, which does not include biometric land departure information reflecting the many travelers who cross the border on foot or using their own vehicles,” the report stated.

“Timely identification, tracking, and adjudication of potential visa overstays is critical to ICE’s public safety and national security mission, “wrote Inspector General John Roth in a statement.

Other issues included:

  • The lack of integration also posed problems for users needing to access thevarious systems. For example, ICE personnel had to retain and use anywhere from 10 to 40 passwords, which was cumbersome as users may log into dozens of systems each week, all with separate passwords. Users at every location we visited stated that the repeated log-ins from system to system took time and was often frustrating. Also, passwords expire on different dates, requiring that users take time to manage them.
  • ICE agents and officers faced challenges obtaining real-time access to information about the immigration status of potential overstays, which iscritical to properly validate whether or not a subject is in the United States legally at the time of investigation.
  • The stove-piped systems used for visa tracking were inherited from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was abolished with the creation of DHS in 2003.
    Amid the backlog, agents in the field have experienced increases inworkloads as the number of overstay leads has increased by 65% over the last 3 years. Specifically, the number of leads that CTCEU sent to Homeland Security Investigations agents in the field increased from 6,033 in FY 2013 to 9,968 in FY 2015. Without better IT systems, ICE will continue to face inefficiencies and backlogs in overstay investigation cases that otherwise might have been avoided.

For its part, the ICE CIO agreed with the OIG’s conclusions and recommendations for change. For example, “the OIG recommend the DHS CIO continue to work with components to further eliminate duplication, improve information sharing, and properly align system access, especially for system modernization efforts, across DHS according to visa tracking mission requirements.

The ICE CIO concurred, stating that as systems are modernized the DHS Office of the CIO will help identify potential gaps in services resulting from changes to component programs.”

“We agree with the actions described by the DHS CIO to partner with DHS components to help standardize overstay data and continue to monitor the biometric program for gaps in data quality, availability, and consistency. We look forward to receiving updates once these actions are completed.”

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