It’s been another slow news week in the world of IT-related errors, problems and failures. The most interesting IT Hiccup of the week involves a puzzling six-week outage affecting the computer system that supports U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) administered courts across the country.
About a month ago, the New York Post ran a story describing a “tech meltdown” involving five servers located in Falls Church, Virginia, on 12 April. The servers are an integral part of the computer system supporting the 59 immigration courts administered by the EOIR. According to the Department of Justice, the EOIR “primarily decides whether foreign-born individuals, who are charged by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with violating immigration law, should be ordered removed from the United States or should be granted relief or protection from removal and be permitted to remain in this country.”
As a result of the outage, which also took out the mandatory electronic registry for accredited immigration attorneys and representatives, the 260-plus immigration court judges (and staff) have had to return to pencil-and-paper methods. As described at JDSUPRA.com, the problem has kept “court clerks from accessing court records, entering new ones in the system, and making audio recordings of hearings.”
An immigration judge from San Francisco put the situation this way in a Las Vegas Sunstory: “Everything is connected to the court docketing system. Like everything these days, more and more things are inter-connected. To open up the court docketing system about a certain case, first it has to be scheduled and then I can pull up the part that allows me to record it.” Since immigration courts don’t have court reporters, the proceedings are recorded digitally and then transcribed later if they are later needed, the Sun article states. However, because of outage, judges are reportedly capturing information using cassette recorders.
The loss of the computer system has slowed down an already clogged immigration court system (there is a backlog of almost 360 000 court cases), and has forced the EOIR to note on its website that it has had to “prioritize caseloads to compensate for the reliance on manual processes.”
In addition, the “courts' notification system relies heavily on a toll-free hotline, which allows those in detention centers who don't have access to computers to check on the status of their cases and when their next hearings are. A recorded message warns callers that the hotline hasn't been updated since April 12,” according to a McClatchy News story. Immigration lawyers say that the outage has made it nigh unto impossible for them determine the status of their new clients’ cases.
When the EOIR computer system is fixed, of course, all the information captured manually over the past weeks is going to have to be entered into the computer system. Dana Leigh Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told McClatchy News that, “I imagine it will take us weeks to months to get caught up and make sure the computer system is completely caught up.”
The big question is when, exactly, will the EOIR computers be fixed?
Soon after the system went down, the EOIR Public Affairs Office put out a simple three-line statement (pdf) on 14 April saying that there was an outage, and that, “We hope to have this situation resolved in the near future.” A few days later, on 18 April, the EOIR posted a statement on its website stating that, “A hardware failure has resulted in the agency’s inability to perform some functions related to its computer systems… We are continuing to evaluate the problem and are hard at work to find a solution.”
The outage didn’t make the news until the New York Post story on 22 April. The Post's story stated the five servers needed parts which would not be available until sometime early May. A story the following day in Federal Computer Weekcast doubt on the Post’s server meltdown story, instead citing “sources familiar with the situation” as indicating the issue was more of an access problem than a server problem.” FCW quoted EOIR spokeswoman Lauren Alder Reid as saying, “This isn't a long-term problem,” and reported that the “the solution won't require an extensive overhaul.” She refused to go into specifics of either the exact problem or the solution, “citing security concerns.”
Apparently, the unspecified “hardware failure” was a longer-term problem than was first expected. For on 9 May, almost a month after the outage occurred, another EOIR spokesperson, this time Kathryn Mattingly, told McClatchy News that, “Our staff is hard at work to bring everything back up to typical function, but we do not have an estimated timeline for a complete fix.” Again, the EOIR declined to give any more detail on what was going on.
Last week, a top but unnamed Department of Justice official told the Politico that, “Progress has been made in resolving the problems and a fix could be achieved by early next week.” We should soon have confirmation of everything returning to normal, then.
The Politico story added that Attorney General Eric Holder also refused to talk specifics about the problems plaguing the EOIR computer system at a news conference last week, but hinted strongly that Congress needed to increase its funding of the EOIR if it wanted to keep such problems from re-occurring. I wonder if that includes a working back-up system, which doesn’t seem to exist.
As highlighted in the Politico story, the nationwide EOIR computer outage has pretty much flown under the radar of most major news organizations and hasn’t triggered much of a response from the Obama Administration—other than to downplay its impact. One reason, the Politico reasons, is that, “those affected directly by the immigration court woes are not U.S. citizens or voters, though their families may be.”
That may be a (politically callous) part of it, but it's just as likely that the Obama Administration doesn’t want to call attention to another government IT problem in the wake of the ACA website mess. Whatever the reason, it does seem a sorry state of affairs that a major outage of a Federal computer system has dragged on for weeks with little more than a shrug of the shoulders from the administration and major news media alike.
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Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.