DHS agency launches new portal

The Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services has launched a new portal to help provide services to aspiring naturalized citizens as well as persons dealing with refugee, permanent residence and other immigration benefit processes.

The agency contracted with Merlin International of Denver in Sept. 2005 to build a portal that would relieve some of the burden on CIS' telephone information services.

CIS is implementing a long-term plan to overhaul its systems, which has included issuing a contract to digitize millions of paper records and planning to consolidate its sprawling array of databases.

One goal of CIS' technology overhaul is to lay the groundwork for a potential guest-worker program. That project, backed by the White House and many in Congress, could provide a path to citizenship or at least to legal status for many millions of workers now in the country illegally, but political agreement on the proposal remains uncertain.

The redesigned portal is available at the same Web address, uscis.gov. It serves some 135,000 visitors daily for a monthly total of almost six million visitors, CIS said in an announcement. The agency said the new portal would help users download needed forms, file forms electronically, find answers to questions about immigration procedures and schedule appointments at the agency's offices.

A CIS fact sheet describing the new portal's features highlighted its improved search functions and an e-mail service that provides alerts about site changes. The fact sheet noted that the portal redesign has changed the bookmarks needed to access frequently requested information, such as guides to obtaining permanent residency or 'green card' status and obtaining citizenship.

Merlin International stated in an announcement that it integrated apps from several vendors, including enterprise content management from Vignette Corp. of Austin, Texas; web development from The Berndt Group of Baltimore, Md.; Web services from Akamai Technologies of Cambridge, Mass.; and the FAST search engine from Fast Search and Transfer ASA of Oslo, Norway, to help build a portal that users could navigate intuitively. The Vignette enterprise content management apps allow CIS to capture, manage, store, preserve and deliver content and documents, Merlin said. 'Additionally, with FAST's search engine technology, USCIS is able to accelerate search return results,' Merlin said.

The company stated that CIS 'receives more than 3.5 million calls every month, yet only has the capacity to support a little over 50 percent of them. The agency spends between $15 million to $20 million a year supporting phone calls in which 80 percent of the answers could be found on its Web site.'

Merlin noted that if a guest-worker program is approved, the resulting workload could confront CIS with the task of processing some 12 million additional immigration cases. The upgraded system also is designed to support DHS' national security mission, part of which consists of excluding individuals who pose security risks.

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