Bureaucratic nightmare on immigration?

President Barack Obama has gone and said it, but can he actually do it?

The political debate over Obama’s unilateral immigration actions is obscuring the more basic question of whether the federal government is actually up to the task of handling a flood of applications from as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants seeking quasi-legal status.

Among the potential problems: the agency that handles immigration paperwork may have to double its capacity for applications very quickly; critics say the potential for fraud increases with a high volume of immigrants in a short amount of time; the wait time for all kinds of immigration approvals could dramatically increase.

Administration officials are acutely aware of the dangers posed by failing to carry through on the promises Obama outlined in his speeches Thursday and Friday. Throughout the process of planning for the new immigration moves, White House aides and other officials have been intent on avoiding the kind of logistical and practical execution problems that made the roll-out of Healthcare.gov such a debacle.

The new immigration effort is a similar high-wire act that needs to be carried out without legislative or financial help from Congress. And it involves two agencies with checkered reputations among immigrant rights advocates: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. USCIS will have up to six months to get ready to accept applications, but will be pressured to process those requests quickly and could be tempted to cut corners.

A former federal immigration official involved with planning the 2012 program acknowledged that the new deferred action will be a test for the agency. “The modeling and the logistics are incredibly challenging,” said the ex-official, who asked not to be named. “USCIS processes about 4 million petitions a year already… So, we’re going to double that in a short period of time.”

Senior staffers at the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Homeland Security have been holding regular meetings since February or March of this year to make sure USCIS has a workable plan to handle the onslaught of forms, supporting documents and queries the new immigration actions are likely to produce, according to current and former officials.

White House officials said the best asset the administration has is experience already under its belt from debuting and implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood arrival program Obama created in 2012, which drew more than 600,000 applications from so-called Dreamers.

“We have been very focused on this for a long time. We have been looking at how you would do this for many, many months now,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Friday. “We have the advantage of having done the DACA program two years ago, which is the model for how the affirmative relief portion of the president’s steps would work, it’s the basis for that. So, we have a good sense of how to do that and the people who helped set that are still in the White House and the agency.”

Republican lawmakers are waiting to pounce, concerned that officials will do little to prevent fraud in the new deferred deportation program and warning that diverting resources to the new effort will prolong delays for legal immigrants who need important documents and decisions from the federal government.

The administration is likely to encounter on a much larger scale the same problems officials ran into with when they processing the Dreamers applications a couple of years ago, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Friday.

“Under DACA, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services publicly touts online that officials do not regularly verify the validity of the documentary evidence provided by applicants to meet the program’s requirements, thereby encouraging fraud,” Goodlatte said. “DACA unfairly punishes legal immigrants who played by the rules by creating longer wait times for their applications to be processed. Now that deferred action applies to millions more unlawful immigrants, these problems will only be made much worse.”

Officials are confident enough in the execution that they don’t believe it will be necessary to appoint a point-person to oversee all aspects of the immigration policy changes Obama announced. “I do not see a need for a czar,” Pfeiffer said Friday at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.

Despite that confidence, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged this week that the earlier program did encounter some problems.

“We learned a lot. CIS has learned a lot about implementation of such a program from that experience,” he said Wednesday. “My observation is that, while there may have been some bumps in the road in the start-up of it like any large government program, the implementation of it has gone relatively well. It’s obviously made a lot of people happy.”

One widely-reported effect of the DACA rollout was an increase in delays for other kinds of immigration applications. In some instances, waits for green cards for immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens jumped from about five months to 15 months — a delay attributable at least in part to personnel being diverted to handle the deferred action program.

House Republicans will be closely watching the new program for any impact it has on other immigration agency work. Such indications could support their argument that Obama is putting the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of those who are following the rules and working legally through the system.

“There became a huge backlog and longer wait times for these relatives of U.S. citizens to come here,” one House GOP aide said Friday. “That is going to happen again. There’s no way around it.”

Implementing the new programs Obama announced Thursday is almost certain to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Figures USCIS provided to Congress show the 2012 DACA program required 900 new employees and spent about $280 million over a three-year period.

However, administration statistics show the 2012 program estimated to pull in about $425 million in fees over three years, more than covering the projected costs. Officials also expect the new programs to be more than paid for by user fees, which run $380 a person for a work permit and $85 for scanning of fingerprints as part of a “biometric” background check.

Another benefit of the fee-funded approach is that congressional threats to block funding through the budget process are relatively empty. Shutting down the process would likely require separate legislation that Obama would be all but certain to veto.

Immigration lawyers said they believe the existing fees will be more than adequate to cover any costs the administration incurs when staffing up to hand out the new relief Obama is offering.

“One of the worst kept secrets in the immigration field is that the work permit fee is inflated and is way higher than the actual work involved, in order to even out other fees,” said Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It has covered the DACA process.”

The administration is also giving itself more wiggle room timewise than it did with DACA.

“We had a 60-day lead there which left very little time for operational planning and management,” recalled one ex-official involved.

The administration announced Friday that the new relief program for parents of U.S. citizens will kick in within 180 days, so the system to accept applications may not be ready until May. But once it is up and running, immigrant activists will want the work permits turned around promptly.

“There will be a lot of pressure on the administration to ensure that people start seeing visible, tangible results of this announcement quickly — so that it feels real,” the ex-official said.

Uncertainty about whether a future president would recognize or extend the new deferred action status, which will last three years, could also limit enrollment in the program. But officials say the experience with the first DACA program suggests most people will step up.

“That’s the same question we were asked about DACA, and 700,000 people later, I think that question, at least for that program, has an answer,” said White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 percent of the people eligible for DACA have come forward, and we would hope that that would be true the next time.”

Another open question is whether new enforcement priorities issued Friday will limit the number of stories about longtime U.S. residents arrested for a minor crime being deported over immigration violations a decade or more earlier. Such stories have fueled intense anger towards Obama among many in the immigrant community.

The new guidance could change that by getting rid of a priority category that included all illegal immigrants who’d been previously deported or ordered deported. That meant immigrants who were well-respected in the community could be locked up because they were detained at the border years ago and came back to the country soon thereafter.

Now, recent border crossers and people who defied a prior deportation order will still be considered priorities for removal from the country, but the mere fact that someone was deported before or left voluntarily won’t automatically put them in great danger of deportation.

“The practical impact will be to make the immigration agents jobs easier in terms of focusing on those people who pose a threat to public safety,” said former Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director John Sandweg, who publicly advocated for such a change. That and other changes will “shrink the haystack” by eliminating those who are a low priority to deport, he said.

However, some ICE agents have been notably resistant and even gone to court to fight directives the Obama administration has issued on immigration priorities in recent years.

The fact that Johnson is now issuing memos setting department-wide priorities and policies could bring greater consistency to practices that often differed at three different agencies with immigration responsibilities USCIS, ICE and Customs and Border Protection, said veteran immigration lawyer David Leopold.

“Turning any kind of an agency is kind of like turning a battleship… Memos coming from the central authority of the secretary can actually have more of an effect,” Leopold said. “There’s an element within ICE that quite frankly is not crazy about the use of discretion. There’s an element within CBP I’m sure feels the same way… We need to have a culture change within the bureaucracy.”

(From the: Politico)