Plans to move U.S. Immigration office to Wilkins criticized

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A federal government office that handles immigration and citizenship matters is moving to Wilkins, provoking the ire of its local employees and agencies that serve immigrants, who say the new location is out of the way and difficult to access via public transit.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office is moving about 10 miles, from 3000 Sidney St., in the SouthSide Works, to 777 Penn Center Blvd. in Wilkins. Two buses, the 67 and P67, which run from Downtown to Monroeville, stop within a quarter-mile of the site.

The federal General Services Administration, which oversaw the site selection process and lease negotiations, said the new office was selected to save USCIS money. The office is expected to move by the end of this year, GSA spokesperson Gina Gilliam wrote in an email.

Planning for a new site began in 2010 because the lease at SouthSide Works was set to expire, and a lease at the Penn Center Boulevard location was negotiated in August 2013 following a “competitive procurement,” she wrote.

A number of Pittsburgh field office employees, immigration attorneys and advocates criticized the new site, citing a lack of accessibility, and the selection process, saying it did not adequately account for local needs.

In early July, 10 USCIS Pittsburgh field office employees sent a letter to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s office, writing that “the relocation is completely contrary to the mission of the agency and is the result of misguided and ill-informed efforts” and noting that it would “disenfranchise a vulnerable immigrant population and stakeholders.” Copies also were sent to Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, among others.

New location: U.S. Citzenship and Immigration office

Representatives of Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Casey acknowledged receiving the letter and said they were trying to learn more about the move. Peduto spokesperson Tim McNulty said that it was the first he had heard of the issue and declined to comment further.

In their letter, Pittsburgh field office employees noted that the selection of new USCIS field offices in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis were debated because of similar access concerns.

Ms. Gilliam said in her email that the new office adheres to national requirements but did not elaborate or comment on accessibility.

Yinka Aganga-Williams, executive director for the Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach, said she wished her organization — which helps integrate refugees and immigrants in Pittsburgh — and other service agencies had been consulted about the move because they interact often with USCIS. She said changes in transportation costs and travel time could affect the myriad services they provide, including help with asylum petitions and work authorization.

Kristen Schneck, an immigration attorney and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s local chapter, called the move a “horrible idea” that would complicate her work and the lives of her clients. Her partner Mark Harley said he expects traveling to the new office site will cause immigrants “nightmares” and probably require them to take an entire day off work.

Every day, 50 to 100 immigrants visit the field office for interviews and hearings associated with green card or naturalization proceedings (these often require two visits to the USCIS office, sometimes three or four). The office received 725 applications for naturalization between January and March 2014.

Jamie Englert, an accredited advocate with Jewish Family and Children's Services of Pittsburgh, said 90 percent of their approximately 450 immigrant and refugee clients rely on public transit.

Joanna Bernstein, service coordinator for Casa San Jose, a center in Brookline that offers social services to Latino immigrants, said the move will require them to provide more transportation assistance. The organization often coordinates transportation and partners immigrants with chaperones.

Relocating the office to Wilkins “doesn’t really seem very encouraging or welcoming,” she said.

Although dissatisfied with the new location choice, Ms. Aganga-Williams acknowledged that overcrowding is an issue at the current site. In the courtroom at the South Side office, she said “everybody is sitting into everybody’s business,” making it difficult to speak privately.

The field office in Wilkins is also expected to house the Application Support Center, currently located Downtown, where immigrants go for fingerprinting.

The field office serves Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and employs 23 people.

Stephanie McFeeters: or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters.

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