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Moving Out: Feds shipping local Immigration Services office out of town 

"There was much discussion of, 'How can we stop this?'"

They have already crossed oceans and time zones, leaving their homes for a chance at a new life. Now immigrants who come to Pittsburgh must brave yet another alien world: Wilkins Township.

And "no one is happy about it," says Jackie Martinez, a local immigration attorney.

For the past decade, immigrants seeking green cards, or other changes to their status, reported to the Pittsburgh field office of Citizen and Immigration Services at 3000 Sidney St., in the SouthSide Works. But the office was being crowded out by other Homeland Security operations, and in late August, the government announced a new home for CIS's three dozen workers: the Penn Center East VII building, on Penn Center Boulevard, in Wilkins.

The move isn't slated to take place until early 2015, but the grumbling has already begun.

In selecting the site, federal officials "didn't pay much concern to the people who use immigration services," says Martinez. While a move somewhere was inevitable, she says, "We didn't think they would move out of town."

The Pittsburgh field office handles immigration issues for the western portion of the state, and Martinez and other attorneys say they've been told the new location is better positioned to help immigrants living outside the city. Still, they note, Pittsburgh is a regional hub, and one whose colleges attract sizable numbers of international students.

Also caught up in the move is an Application Support Center: Currently located on Penn Avenue, Downtown, the center performs fingerprinting for immigrants. While not every immigrant will need to visit the CIS office, Martinez says, "Pretty much everybody has to go for a fingerprint application."

The need to travel to the eastern suburbs poses a special challenge for immigrants who don't have driver's licenses — or cars.

Public-transit access at the current facility isn't ideal, says Kristen Schneck, a local immigration attorney: "There's no direct T service or anything; mostly my clients get rides from someone else." Still, a ride on the 48-Arlington from Downtown to within a few blocks of the South Side facility takes less than 20 minutes, and the bus runs about 20 times a day during business hours. By contrast, the 67-Monroeville travels to Penn Boulevard about half as often ... and the trip takes nearly an hour.

Helen Gerhardt, of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, worries the new location will just add to the difficulties of immigrants who rely on the system. "These are extremely hard-working people that are already struggling," she says. "If they miss a bus, the connective system is so screwed up that they may have to wait another hour to catch one. I've talked to many, many people who have lost jobs because of that."

When local officials announced the move at a September meeting of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, "There was much discussion of, 'How can we stop this?'" says Mark Harley, a past president of the chapter.

"We're almost all based in the city or immediately outside," says Harley, who shares a practice with Schneck in Dormont. And immigration law puts a premium on face-to-face interaction. Speaking with a local immigration officer, one with firsthand knowledge of a case, typically requires an office visit. "We're at the immigration office almost every other day, and sometimes multiple times in a day," Harley says.

No one blames local staff for the pending move: The site was chosen by the General Services Administration, which handles facilities for the federal government. In an email, GSA spokesperson Gina Blyther Gilliam said the new site "was determined by the lowest price offer that was received" among those meeting space and other site requirements.

"Public transportation to the building was considered ... and it is available to the subject location," she wrote.

Word about the planned move has been trickling out slowly. A spokeswoman for the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Pittsburgh, which provides services to immigrants, said the agency could not comment, for example, because it had not heard about the move "directly" from government officials. In any case, says Schneck, "I got the impression it was a done deal."

Indeed, says Gilliam, "The new lease contract has been signed. This decision is considered final."

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