USCIS continues to struggle with its Electronic Immigration System

The agency's attempt to automate the N-400, the key application for naturalization form, "has not been successful."
USCIS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ attempts to modernize continue to be fraught with failure.

A recently-released audit from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General states categorically that the department’s attempt to automate the N-400 — the key application for naturalization form — “has not been successful.”

The report found that, as with previous elements of the agency’s updated Electronic Immigration System (ELIS), the form N-400 capabilities deployed in ELIS lacked functionality and experienced problematic outages. What’s more, “USCIS did not ensure field personnel were adequately trained to use the new system capabilities prior to deployment.”

It’s a damning finding, not least because of the security concerns it raises. Information from the N-400 is used to perform background checks on would-be naturalized citizens, but technical errors in ELIS (including one bug that eliminates certain letter combinations like “NA” and “NM,” changing many of the names the system sends to the FBI) have meant that “more than 200 individuals became citizens without proper background checks.”


The troubles have also created delays in a busy system — USCIS gets approximately 84,000 N-400 naturalization applications per month. Far from the efficiency improvements it was supposed to bring, ELIS’s failures have doubled processing times and increased application backlogs “by more than 60 percent,” the report says.

The IG report offers five recommendations to the director of USCIS, including that personnel get proper ELIS training and that the agency “perform a risk-based analysis of all unresolved ELIS technical issues to ensure that program resources are dedicated to addressing the highest risks impacting the integrity, operational efficiency, and delivery of customer service in immigration benefits processing.” USCIS concurred with all five.

This is far from the only time difficulties with ELIS have been condemned by the office of the inspector general. In August 2016 the system was actually taken offline after security concerns were revealed, and in January the IG vigorously opposed its reinstatement. A Government Accountability Office report from March also found that USCIS’ struggles with technology pose “significant risks” to national security.

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