The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a $2.6-billion-a-year agency. It is also the paper-jammed and -backlogged agency formerly known as the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).

Ask anybody who’s dealt with the agency in either incarnation and you’ll hear horror stories of standing in blocks-long lines before dawn and spending the whole day waiting for your name to be called. Then a year or two later, you might hear something–if you’re lucky.

Someone caught on to the nightmare known as the INS in 1999 and began a modernization process, but they forgot to fund it. Then came 9/11, then the merger into DHS, and then more lack of funds.

Finally, late in 2008 IBM was chosen to take the whole process online in a $500-million, long-overdue project. Considering that it costs the USCIS $100 million a year just to ship and store the huge files it creates for each immigrant, it seems that they coulda and shoulda found the $500 million many long years ago. In five years of operation or so, the computerization will pay for itself.

The goal is to process each applicant in six months’ time, down from the 18 months to three years that it typically takes, using electronic applications and database filing.

The new system will allow government agencies, from the Border Patrol to the FBI to the Labor Department, to access immigration records faster and more accurately. In combination with initiatives to link digital fingerprint scans to unique identification numbers, it would create a lifelong digital record for applicants. It also would eliminate the need for time- and labor-intensive filing and refiling of paper forms, which are stored at 200 locations in 70 million manila file folders. (Big Brother has finally arrived!)

To its credit, the USCIS did manage to put its appointments system online a few years back (for another cool $500 mil), and those lines that snaked around several city blocks have now been reduced. Queues still exist, but people show up at appointed times rather than lining up for a limited number of seats each morning. That part is now more manageable, but the processing time is still far too lengthy.

The whole system is so dysfunctional that immigrants who get tired of the wait (or whose documents are simply lost or misplaced, rendering them a non-person) can turn to the court of last resort called (funnily) OIL, Office of Immigrant Litigation, which employs 250 lawyers and costs the government another $20 or more million a year to operate.