DHS system puts immigration data at users' fingertips

Project at a glance

Who: The Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services sponsored the project, which began under the aegis of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Now the National File Tracking System provides information to CIS, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other DHS agencies.


Mission: The system helps CIS employees find aliens' paper files throughout the department's 92 file control offices worldwide, as well as Border Patrol stations and other DHS offices.


What was: Immigration officials tracked aliens' files via a client-server system known as the Receipt Alien File Accountability Control System, which indicated the office a file was in but not its exact location. Employees used a system of paper tickets to determine a file's location and retrieve it.


What is: The new system uses Web technology to access an Oracle Corp. database that provides the exact location of all files. NFTS also locates all duplicate and temporary files so employees can consolidate them.


Users: About 30,000 users now are logged on to NFTS. About 60 percent of them are adjudicators who process aliens' requests for benefits under immigration law, and the rest are Border Patrol agents, investigators and other DHS users.


Impact: NFTS has simplified and greatly accelerated the process of locating and retrieving aliens' files.


Duration: Federal officials began planning the transition from RAFACS in 1999. Coding began in 2000. About 80 percent of all aliens' files, which number more than 50 million, now are in the system, and the rest will be entered by next March.

WORLDWIDE HUNT: 'We never throw anything away,' CIS' Betty Mattson, left, says. So, adds Kelly Gilmore, it was crucial that NFTS be able to pinpoint where in the world an immigration file could be found, right down to whose desk it was on.

Rick Steele

Keeping track of more than 50 million paper files documenting foreigners' dealings with immigration authorities would be a challenge under the best of circumstances.

But when the files are spread across 92 offices around the world, it becomes a truly daunting task.

The Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, one of three successor bureaus to the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, has responded with a Web application that makes locating and requesting files faster and more efficient.

INS began work on the National File Tracking System in 1999, developing requirements that led the agency to start coding in late 2001.

The agency has entered into the system about 80 percent of aliens' files, also known as A files, and plans to complete the task by March.

CIS has deployed the system to 87 of its 92 file control offices spread across the world'from Bangkok to Washington and everywhere in between.

The new system has reduced the time required to locate and request an A file from 24 hours to three seconds, according to Betty Mattson, IT director of CIS' Records Management Office.

'Every single person who applies for immigration benefits in this country is assigned a main number consisting of nine digits and the letter A,' said Mattson, a 12-year government veteran who started with INS 7 ' years ago.

An alien's file starts as a jacket that already bears an A number; the first item to be entered is the initial request for an immigration benefit.

Immigration benefits can be permission to study, work, apply for naturalization or extend a stay in the country under a different visa category, among other status changes.

'CIS adjudicators use the information in the file to go to other systems to see, for instance, what benefits a person is entitled to,' Mattson said.

Before the agency adopted NFTS, it used an application called the Receipt Alien File Accountability Control System. RAFACS was a client-server system that used servers at each of the dozens of offices holding files.

RAFACS updated its servers around the world each night via a batch interface.

'Using RAFACS, you could go into our central index and you could see which file control office a file was in, but you had no idea where within the office a file was,' said Kelly Gilmore, a special assistant in the records office.

Under RAFACS, adjudicators requesting files had to take the further step of generating a paper pull ticket informing the file's holder of the request.

'Now, anyone can go into an inquiry screen, type in the A number, and it will tell you where [it is] in any office, in the whole entire world, down to the desk it is on and the name of the person who has it,' Gilmore said.

NFTS does not contain information about what is actually in the files. That was a deliberate decision, Mattson said, because it allowed CIS to keep NFTS at the sensitive but unclassified level, avoiding more stringent security.

En route to the current, third version of NFTS, the agency experimented with a prototype called NFTS Version 2. The prototype used a client-server architecture.

'We rejected [Version 2] because of the cost,' Mattson said. 'If you are going to have a server at every location, you are going to need some pretty savvy IT folks to monitor that server.'

Growing pains

Before adopting NFTS, department officials and contractor EDS Corp. resolved some interim problems. One of them caused users' screens to lock up during such tasks as batch updates.

System developers worked with Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. to install a patch that resolved the glitch, Mattson said.

NFTS runs under Windows 2000 and taps an Oracle9 database. It uses the Simple Object Access Protocol Toolkit to expose some functions to other systems in the department so they can access NFTS data directly.

The system uses Microsoft Message Queue and Extensible Markup Language to track, schedule and help generate reports, and Crystal Reports from Business Objects Inc. of San Jose, Calif., to create the reports.

AppMetrics from Xtremesoft of Woburn, Mass., helps control data flow, which reduces outages and bottlenecks. The software provides information on how the system's code is performing and sends alerts when the system meets performance thresholds.

The Oracle database management system uses partitioning to group data from each office into segments. As a result, if a particular database partition experiences problems, the data hiccup is isolated and NFTS can continue functioning.

Mattson ascribes the project's success to the use of DHS' enterprise architecture and systems development lifecycle.

NFTS' open, extensible architecture has helped automate links to other systems within DHS and provide for links to the government's main records repository, the National Archives and Records Administration.

That's important because a person's A file, once assigned, becomes his record for life. 'We never throw anything away,' Mattson said.

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