Far-flung office: GSA makes a relocation hard on immigrants

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Even long-time Western Pennsylvanians can be stumped when the question is “Where’s Wilkins?”

The township that sits just west of Monroeville had such an identity crisis that it enacted an ordinance requiring businesses situated in Wilkins to say so in their advertisements instead of relying on its better-known neighbor.

Visibility is a significant problem with the decision by the federal General Services Administration to move its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office 10 miles, from Pittsburgh’s South Side to Wilkins.

The office, with 23 employees, serves the entire state of West Virginia and 35 Pennsylvania counties, from the state’s western border toward the east past State College. In the first three months of this year, it received 725 applications for naturalization, a process that can require multiple visits. Each day, 50 to 100 immigrants travel to the office for interviews or hearings associated with green cards and naturalization.

Accessibility for clients who rely on public transit is another big concern. Only two Port Authority routes run from Downtown to the vicinity of 777 Penn Center Blvd., the new office location — but the closest stop is a quarter-mile away. Agencies that work with immigrants say that’s unacceptable. The Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Pittsburgh said 90 percent of its 450 clients use transit. Other agencies said they would have to spend more of their own funds on transportation for clients.

Parking was a concern on the South Side, but the alternative presents too many challenges.

Office employees have written to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, hoping to prevent the move out of the city, which is set to take place by the end of the year. They should pressure the GSA to secure appropriate office space in a centrally located, easily accessible building.

If the region hopes to attract legal immigrants to contribute to economic growth, it can’t afford to make it so difficult for them to acquire the necessary services to stay here.

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