INS embarks on IT makeover

GCN Photo by Henrik G. DeGyor

'No one else has the interest in protecting our data that we do,' INS' Scott Hastings says.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service plans to fulfill Congress' mandate that it modernize applications to track foreigners and screen people entering the United States by weaving it into a plan for revamping the agency's IT infrastructure.

Before the agency came under congressional heat because of blunders related to the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, INS had begun efforts to bolster its systems. The agency long has been the subject of criticism from lawmakers and the General Accounting Office; both have said INS systems lack cohesion and appropriate management.

In response to its critics, INS officials are launching a five-year, $550 million infrastructure upgrade. Dubbed Atlas, the program will rely on outsourcing, said Scott Hastings, associate commissioner for IRM at INS.

'If we got Atlas today,' Hastings said, 'we would modernize and sustain our systems probably through a creative procurement of our hardware and communications environment and our infrastructure, to enable it to support the additional applications' that Congress has mandated in HR 3525. Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform bill into law this month.

'Right now I don't think we can support the entry-exit system' that Congress has ordered the agency to build, he said.

The drawbacks of INS' limited infrastructure surfaced recently when the processing of thousands of immigration applications stalled because INS offices reportedly have not been provided with terminals or employee training for the Interagency Border Inspection System.
The visa tangle arose when INS ordered its workers to begin checking visa applicants' names against the IBIS database, which will form part of the entry-exit visa system that the agency is developing. INS technical officials declined to comment on problems with IBIS, saying they had arisen from program decisions.

Getting creative

Hastings said he is working to get a sustainable, scalable infrastructure to support the new applications and will 'look to being as creative as I can to buy these services.'

He cited the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA program and the Navy Marine Corps Intranet project as models for outsourcing that INS will consider when implementing Atlas. Hastings said he would look to industry to recommend hardware and software to be used for the infrastructure upgrade. 'I would put out my objectives and let industry solve it for me,' he said.

In the border security law, Congress directed INS to build a system called Chimera to tie together government lookout systems and databases for tracking people entering the country.

One of the most important goals of the law is to eliminate stovepipe applications, said Scott Gerber, spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the border security bill.

'We need to make sure the critical information can be accessed by all agencies involved in the process,' Gerber said.

Hastings said he understands the driving force behind lawmakers' demands but noted that INS remains responsible for securing the data.

'It is technologically possible to make the systems interoperable,' he said. 'The issue is how to make what data that is required by whom available'we are wrestling with that mightily.'

INS faces the test of sharing data both with other federal agencies and with state and local governments, Hastings said.

The prospect brings to light several security challenges, such as setting data access controls, establishing encryption policies and devising cyberattack countermeasures, he said. For this fiscal year, INS plans to spend $13 million on security upgrades.

'These issues are very common to all the federal agencies,' Hastings added. 'But this becomes much more complicated when we are at the table with our counterparts, talking about sharing information.'

Balancing the mandates of sharing and securing data is an extremely complex issue, he said. 'If by sharing data you lose the integrity of the data and the security of the data, that would be counterproductive to the security of the country,' Hastings said.

As a first step toward Atlas, INS in the next few weeks plans to release an enterprise architecture plan. The agency pledged two years ago to develop the architecture following a critical GAO report.

Since then, INS has used the Visual Information Technology Architecture, a tool based on the CIO Council's Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework, to draft and fine-tune its systems archictecture design.

'VITA is the library of our current environment and our to-be environment,' Hastings said. 'It has all the applications, linkages and data architectures. ... It will guide Atlas and the entire enterprise architecture.'

INS' plans depend on funds from the House and Senate Appropriations committees, both of which have expressed wariness about the Justice Department's aptitude for implementing large IT systems. 'There are management difficulties unique to the agency right now,' a Capitol Hill staff member said. 'They are talking about splitting the agency in two.'

The House has passed the Barbara Jordan Immigration Reform and Accountability Act of 2002, HR 3231, which would split the INS into two agencies, one for border control and enforcement, and the other to manage visa applicants and immigrants. Each bureau would be overseen by an associate attorney general.

The Senate is considering a separate reorganization plan proposed by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas). The Senate plan would create a new administration post, the director of immigration affairs, to oversee the new bureaus.

Kennedy said that under his bill, the director of immigration affairs 'will be able to integrate information systems, policies and administrative infrastructure.'

Full-speed ahead

INS officials said their plans for upgrading systems as mandated by the border security bill would not be affected by the reorganization bills. 'The upgrades are going to move forward no matter what because it's by law that we have to create these systems,' INS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman said.

Whatever the fate of the reorganization bills, it seems likely that Congress will fund INS systems programs. 'Making sure we get Atlas right is critical,' the congressional aide said. 'Atlas will be the backbone for the systems so it is central to the border security issues.'

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