Marc Pearl is president and CEO of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council.
Following the stunning primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a consensus point of view had emerged from commentators that there is little to no hope for comprehensive immigration reform anytime soon.
On June 30, President Obama declared, “America cannot wait forever for [the House of Representatives] to act.” In addition to moving available resources from America’s interior to the Mexican border, he said he was also instructing DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to formulate additional recommendations for executive actions he can take. In short, the necessary legislative changes that could help fix the system seem unlikely to come anytime soon, so he is doing what he can without them.
We can now use this time to take a lesson learned from the Affordable Care Act rollout last fall, and urge the White House, and DHS in particular, to use this lull in legislative activity to get a jump start on early planning and the necessary coordination among federal agencies and other stakeholders. This is most assuredly the time for the federal government to start working with industry as it thinks through the complexities associated with the implementation of immigration reform, to identify the resource gaps and potential future requirements of the system, to determine a realistic timeframe for accomplishing any potential future reforms, and to start coordinating planning efforts with public and private stakeholders.
With an estimated 11 million undocumented individuals already living here (and not likely to self-deport) and thousands more entering the country annually, reform measures will need to address and fix what the president called again a “broken” immigration system on an enormous scale. Whether new legislation requires an increase in border security (in Border Patrol agents and/or increased technology at the border), an expansion of the E-Verify system, an increase in work visas, new US Citizenship and Immigration Services processing systems, and/or other interoperable IT systems across local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, those responsible for implementation will eventually turn to the private sector for product, service, and technological solutions.
Given the near certain complexities that will accompany any kind of immigration reform, adequate time is needed for planning and implementation. Rather than waiting until after legislation passes, DHS could save a lot of time and money if conceptual/methodological conversations started taking place with industry long before specific requirements are identified and any actual contracts are needed. DHS should start gathering government and industry SMEs together and collect technical input/information, in order to have the ability to think through and understand the best technologies, products and services that need to be designed, deployed and implemented in the future to insure a successful and timely rollout, no matter what the fix is or when it is legislated.
Attempting to conceptualize and acquire the resources and technologies needed within a short timeframe is chock full of potential pitfalls. Rushed efforts increase the likelihood that future systems or networks will not function properly, and that IT platforms will crash, thereby requiring a massive and costly redeployment of programs and resources. To ensure that systems, processes, and human capital can work together to meet mission needs, implementation efforts will require a greater level of dialogue and coordination between the government and industry earlier in the process. If we wait until after legislation passes, it will be too late.
This is a unique opportunity to truly learn from the planning/implementation failures that flowed from such examples as Hurricane Katrina, the VA hospital crisis, and healthcare.gov, and bring the interested and appropriate stakeholders together in order to avoid a similar fate in immigration reform. Even if no legislation passes in the near term, DHS will always be under pressure to implement cost effective systems that work, while the private sector solution providers will always be under constant scrutiny to ensure quality and efficiency.
Our nation cannot afford anything less than a commitment to an early exchange of ideas about what the implementation process might entail. DHS and the private sector have an opportunity to avoid a disaster scenario, and make certain that current and future programs designed to ensure the integrity/security of our nation's border and immigration processes are ready to meet the challenge.