By Pamela Chan
March 31, 2016
Credit : Flickr user Josh Hallett.

Ever since the November Paris attacks and December San Bernardino shootings, U.S. lawmakers have been calling for even tighter visa regulations, since the former was instigated by European militants who had been radicalized after visiting Syria, and the latter, by a California attacker who had been admitted on a fiancé visa.

The recent attacks in Brussels has thrust the issue of national security further into the spotlight, prompting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work harder to ensure that potential militants cannot enter the United States under programs, such as the “visa waiver,” which is granted to citizens of most western countries.

Along with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS), officials have been aiming to modernize the nation’s immigration system since 2005, with goals of moving the entire application process online to the Electronic Immigration System–or ELIS–in order to further ensure that terrorists or others seeking to do the U.S. harm will never be able to receive immigration or citizenship benefits.

Despite years of development, however, a recent report shows that it will take $1 billion and another three years to fully move from a paper-based system to automated benefit processing. There is a severe lack of progress being made in terms of implementing new technology, as customers can still only file applications online for two out of about ninety types of immigration benefits and services (Those two services, which include electronically paying a processing fee for an immigrant visa packet and applying to replace a permanent resident card, account for less than ten percent of the agency’s entire workload).

What’s more is that workers continue to process millions of applications for immigrant benefits within a system that is “more suited to an office environment from 1950 rather than 2016,” says John Roth, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security.

In some cases, green cards and other immigration documents have been mailed to wrong addresses, or printed with incorrect names, creating “potential security concerns about documents that cannot be accounted for or that may have fallen into the wrong hands.” The poor quality of the electronic data that is being kept makes it even more difficult to engage in data matching, to root out fraud, and to identify security risks, Roth says. Yet shipping, storing, and handling over twenty million immigrant files would cost more than $300 million a year.

Other issues arising out of the currently outmoded immigration system include lax rules allowing “known human traffickers” to use work and fiancé visas to bring victims into the country. The report also finds that programs such as the EB-5 visa program, which admits investors who spend $500,000 or $1 million into the U.S., may not be subject to close enough scrutiny to ensure Americans’ safety.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, finds these new findings “concerning.” “With ISIS and other terrorist groups active around the world and committed to attacks on our country, our national security depends on our systems for screening visa and immigration applications working effectively,” Johnson said in a statement.

He adds that modernization efforts have been way too slow and expensive. “It should not take years and years and billions and billions of dollars,” he says.

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