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Monday, October 3, 2022
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OIG: DHS IT Systems Failed to Effectively Support Migrant Tracking

OIG found that in order to overcome technology limitations, DHS personnel and partner agencies at the border implemented manual and ad hoc workarounds to process migrants apprehended illegally entering the United States. 

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Information Technology (IT) systems did not effectively allow migrant tracking from apprehension to release or transfer, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) says. 

DHS must be able to process and track each migrant from apprehension to transfer or release. It is vital that Border Patrol agents identify whether each apprehended individual is traveling as part of a family to ensure members can be linked in the system of record.

Federal agencies rely on multiple information technology (IT) systems to track migrants and to release or transfer vast numbers of single adults and family units from Border Patrol custody to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice, or in the case of unaccompanied children, to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Border Patrol agents use the e3 system to record detainee information throughout the process, from apprehension to prosecution, release, or transfer to partner agencies or components. ICE officers use the Enforce Alien Removal Module (EARM) to enter migrants’ case information and process removal cases. e3 and EARM data are stored in ICE’s Enforcement Integrated Database (EID). HHS uses the Unaccompanied Children Portal (UC Portal) to track children. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Unified Immigration Portal (UIP) connects relevant data from agencies across the immigration lifecycle to enable a more complete understanding of an individual’s immigration journey. 

OIG found that in order to overcome technology limitations, DHS personnel and partner agencies at the border implemented manual and ad hoc workarounds to process migrants apprehended illegally entering the United States. 

OIG noted that some Southwest Border Patrol locations shared migrant files in person, which sometimes entailed literally transporting migrants with the files to obtain ICE’s status determination on whether a migrant should move to detention or be released. If ICE rejected a file due to an error, Border Patrol agents had to physically return to their station, with the migrant, to update the e3 system. Agents then traveled back to the ICE location for a second review of the migrant’s paper files, which took hours and delayed transfers. At two border locations, ICE officers had to physically travel to Border Patrol stations to extract migrant files. Other manual methods to track migrants included the use of a whiteboard to track weekly migrant transportation, including incoming and outgoing flight and bus schedules.

The watchdog said the technology limitations occurred because DHS components and partner agencies fund and maintain their own IT systems. OIG said this approach has prevented integration, automation, and real-time information sharing across the Department to support the entire immigration lifecycle. 

However, DHS had several improvement efforts underway during the time of OIG’s audit to facilitate information sharing. For example, DHS has expanded CBP’s UIP to provide dashboards and visualizations to improve information sharing about migrants between DHS, HHS, and other partners. In FY 2021, CBP received $10 million for UIP and reprogrammed $3.5 million to maintain UIP operability for the year. In June 2022, UIP received additional funding through the Technology Modernization Fund to improve capabilities. However, according to CBP, UIP will not be fully operational until the end of FY 2023.

Additionally, in April 2021, ICE piloted a new system, integrated with UIP, called the Case Acceptance System (CAS). Using CAS, ICE expects to greatly reduce the time it takes to determine if ICE will accept Border Patrol’s detained migrant transfers and improve the transfer of custody documentation, instead of relying on manual processes. During its audit, OIG observed CAS and noted that agents could process one migrant every 10 minutes, compared with an average of more than seven hours to manually transfer custody of a migrant from Border Patrol to ICE. As of November 2021, ICE had piloted CAS within four of nine Border Patrol sectors along the Southwest Border. CBP and ICE expanded CAS deployments to all nine Southwest Border Sectors as of February 2022. 

The audit also determined that DHS personnel faced challenges when data was not consistently documented in DHS’ systems of record. For example, migrant apprehension times were not recorded in a consistent manner, and OIG identified missing migrant data that prevented DHS from determining family status. Also, the watchdog found that CBP did not always document a migrant’s intended U.S. address before releasing the individual into the United States using prosecutorial discretion to await immigration proceedings. According to ICE, CBP only recorded addresses 65 percent of the time between March and June 2021. OIG also noted that approximately 30 percent of migrants did not comply with release terms to report to ICE within 60 days between March and September 2021. 

OIG said that these deficiencies can delay uniting children with families and sponsors and cause migrants to remain in DHS custody beyond legal time limits. Also, without accurate data, such as family status, DHS is less likely to ensure family members remain together and at appropriate facilities. OIG wants DHS to continue its efforts to improve IT capabilities to track migrants and share information and has made eight recommendations to help it do so:

  • The Chief Information Officer for DHS should continue to evaluate the use of manual processes employed at the Southwest Border to identify, develop, and implement IT system efficiencies. 
  • The Assistant Commissioner, Office of Information and Technology and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner should continue to analyze and prioritize funding needs to make integration improvements to DHS IT systems ensuring timely and accurate information sharing internally within DHS and externally with the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. 
  • The Assistant Commissioner, Office of Information and Technology should further promote the Unified Immigration Portal to more DHS and external users. 
  • The Chief Information Officer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement should implement solutions to reduce information-sharing barriers, such as the Case Acceptance System, to additional Southwest Border Sectors and locations. 
  • The Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection should evaluate adherence to current immigration policies and memorandums of agreement for internal and external collaboration and working groups and update them as needed. 
  • The Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should evaluate adherence to current immigration policies and memorandums of agreement for internal and external collaboration and working groups and update them as needed. 
  • The Chief Information Officer for DHS should establish a policy or agreement to ensure ongoing collaboration and standardized information sharing, especially during surges, among DHS components; DHS and external partner agencies; and IT professionals and system operators.
  • The Assistant Commissioner, Office of Information and Technology should coordinate with Border Patrol to evaluate, develop, and implement strategies to address form errors. 

DHS concurred and the Department and its components have already undertaken much of the work needed to meet the recommendations, such as expanding CAS deployments.

This is not OIG’s first criticism of DHS’ IT systems for tracking migrants. The watchdog previously found that DHS did not have IT system functionality needed to track separated migrant families during the execution of the Zero Tolerance Policy in 2018 and said that CBP’s ad hoc methods to record and track family separations during this time led to widespread errors. Three of the five recommendations made then were still open at the time of this latest audit.

Read the full report at OIG

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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