With time short and stakes high, the Obama administration knows it cannot afford another debacle like 2013's botched introduction of the Affordable Care Act.
The challenges posed by the new immigration program will be enormous. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services projects 1.3 million people will apply in the first six months, starting in May, although no one knows for sure. Anything close to that will be a giant new workload for the agency, which processes about 6.3 million other applications annually.
The cost of implementing the president's executive actions will be $324 million to $484 million over the next three years, according to a draft of a letter from Homeland Security Secretary
The money to pay for the program will come from application fees, the agency says. Because of that, the administration says it does not need Congress' authority to spend money on the program. The fee for DAPA — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — will be $465. But the department will have to spend millions before the fees start coming in.
In addition to the growing bureaucracy, a host of other challenges, including defining who is eligible, await the agency.
One key difference from the healthcare rollout: no complicated website. The immigration services agency still does most of its business on paper and through the mail, and hopefuls will mail in their applications.
The expected flood of paper will bring its own challenges, however. The applications will be handled at an office complex in suburban Washington, with a new staff of 1,000 government workers, supplemented by as many as 1,000 private contractors.
"It's going to be a monumental effort," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group that usually backs the administration. "It's arguably the biggest [immigration] program they've ever had to implement, and with a population that has done everything possible to avoid contact with authorities."
In November, Obama announced the executive action that would temporarily defer deportation for up to 5 million of the 11.2 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
By far the largest chunk will come in the program known as DAPA. An estimated 4 million people are thought to fit the criteria: continuous residence in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2010, no serious crimes on record and a child who is a U.S. citizen or other legal resident.
Republicans are fuming at what they consider Obama's unconstitutional overreach and have been looking for ways to stop the program. The House voted to block any spending on the new programs in the $39.7-billion budget for the Homeland Security Department, which houses the immigration services agency. That measure so far has failed to pass the Senate.
Also, administration officials are watching a federal courthouse in Texas, where a judge is weighing a challenge to Obama's plan from 26 states, mostly led by Republican governors.
"Processing these illegal actions will obviously be very expensive," said Sen.
The administration isn't waiting to see how the Republican efforts play out. It signed a $7.8-million lease for 246,000 square feet on 12 floors in a complex outside Washington and is planning a cost of about $40 million a year for new employees' salaries and benefits.
The program will be modeled on the administration's 2012 deferred deportation program for young people, the so-called Dreamers. In that program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the agency has handled more than 860,000 applications, with some backlogs and delays but no major problems.
The new rules expanded DACA, making about 300,000 more people eligible; immigration offices will begin accepting those applications Feb. 18.
The DAPA application process will be low-tech. Like a lot of federal agencies, Citizenship and Immigration Services has struggled with information technology. It has spent about $1 billion on an electronic immigration system, ELIS, that is still so clunky and limited that immigration officers can work twice as fast on paper, according to an inspector general's report from July.
The agency will rely on contractors to move the paperwork mountain. It starts with the banking firm of J.P. Morgan Chase, which will be paid to open envelopes, scan applications and deposit checks at centers in Dallas and Phoenix.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which handles those contracts, said Saturday that the cost of those services was about $96 million last year.
The immigration services agency will hire another firm to do records work for DAPA, which may cost as much as $30 million to $40 million for the first year, according to contractor estimates. In a bid document, the agency projects that half of the eligible population for DAPA — about 1.9 million people — will apply in the first 18 months.
The agency anticipates more than 800,000 applications in the first 90 days.
Getting enough staff in place by May will be difficult, a former Homeland Security official told a Senate committee last week. The immigration services agency will probably have to divert workers from other jobs — possibly leading to delays in green card applications or other programs, said Luke Bellocchi, the agency's former deputy ombudsman.
The agency says it will be ready.
"USCIS is on pace to have several hundred employees on board and trained by mid-May, which will ensure every case processed by USCIS receives a thorough, case-by-case review," said agency spokesman Chris Bentley, acknowledging that it may have to pull workers from other tasks if there's an early surge.
"They are going to be under pressure," said one former Homeland Security official who asked for anonymity to discuss the program candidly. "The community is going to want to see the effects of this. But if they get a million applications in the first three months, they are not going to have the staff to adjudicate this."
The agency is also trying to solve other challenges with the program — starting with settling questions about who's eligible. A big one: How will the agency define a parent? Will step-parents be eligible? And what happens if those parents get divorced? What about common-law spouses?
Another thorny question has come up about the kinds of documents applicants will need to produce. Many Dreamers relied on school records, even attaching year-by-year class portraits and report cards to their applications.
For adults, leases, paychecks, utility bills and bank records will be acceptable, but for people who've been living here illegally and trying to stay under the radar, proof might be thin.
"Documentation is going to be much harder for this population," said Michelle Sardone, legalization program director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "You don't want people to take advantage of the situation, but you don't want to make it so difficult that people can't get in."
Advocates are planning a publicity campaign to coax people to step forward and apply. The political furor in Washington probably won't scare people away, they say, but big delays and snafus might.
"If it takes six months for anybody to get approved, that's going to affect participation," said Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor to the National Council of La Raza. "If they are getting approvals in two to three months, then the skeptics are more likely to come forward."