Nine months after City Paper reported that the U.S. government plans to relocate Pittsburgh's immigration office to a suburban office park, local officials — and office employees — are raising concerns about the move.
Pittsburgh's office of the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, which oversees lawful immigration, is headquartered at SouthSide Works. But last year the government decided to relocate CIS to the Penn Center East VII building, in Wilkins Township. The proposal raised concerns among observers, including immigration attorneys, who felt the new location would be less accessible.
Now, 10 staffers in the office have issued a public letter objecting to the move. "The relocation is completely contrary to the mission of the agency and ... will disenfranchise a vulnerable immigrant population," said the July 14 letter, which was sent to the local congressional delegation, along with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Staffers were wary of being quoted in a newspaper. "This really isn't about us," one staffer told City Paper. "It's about the clients we serve."
In February, immigration attorneys expressed concern about the move in a meeting with Peduto, who has sought to make Pittsburgh more welcoming to immigrants. And mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty says Peduto intends to send a letter this week — possibly as this issue goes to press — to Pennsylvania's Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, "asking that the center be kept where it is."
"A lot of the emerging immigrant population is in the south of the city, and it's important they have access to transportation," McNulty says, though he adds that Peduto's "power is somewhat limited" when it comes to reversing decisions by the federal government.
The move, which is slated for the end of 2014, affects the South Side office, where hearings are held and immigrants meet with caseworkers, and a Downtown "Application Support Center," where immigrants are fingerprinted. Immigrants typically visit each location at least once. Speaking on background, a USCIS official said the new space would be more "efficient and customer-friendly," because it would "eliminate[e] the need for [clients] to travel to multiple locations during the application process."
But Wilkins receives far less bus service than Pittsburgh's South Side. "The burden is going to increase tremendously, with increased travel time and possible lost wages" for immigrants, says Elizabeth Waickman, spokesperson for Jewish Family and Children's Service of Pittsburgh. The agency serves roughly 450 immigrants each year: Most are concentrated in Carrick and other South Hills neighborhoods, Waickman says, and 90 percent of them rely on the bus.
According to one CIS staffer, in an average day, about three dozen people come to the fingerprinting office alone. Fingerprinting takes less than 15 minutes: A round-trip bus ride from Downtown to Wilkins on the 67 bus, meanwhile, takes more than two hours.
"If they're taking a bus from Carrick, maybe it takes a couple hours to manage their appointment," Waickman says. "But for a trip to Monroeville, that could be a whole day, which may mean calling off work."
Jim Ritchie, a spokesman for the Port Authority, says that while the transit agency is adding service to some new routes, it's focusing on "routes that are currently packed to the gills." The 67 is not slated for a change, he says. Service can be added when new housing or job centers open, Ritchie notes, in which case "we schedule a meeting to review the impact it might have." No one has asked for such a meeting related to the USCIS relocation, he says.
The Wilkins site was chosen by the General Services Administration; GSA spokesperson Gina Blythe Gilliam previously told CP that Wilkins offered the lowest price for meeting space and other requirements. Elected officials say they want to hear more about that rationale.
"We've received the [USCIS staffers'] letter, and we're looking forward to what GSA has to say," says John Rizzo, a spokesman for Sen. Casey.
Concerns about transit access helped overturn similar proposed relocations in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, but that may not happen here. Last year, Gilliam told City Paper the government's decision was final, and did not signal a change as of press time.
"I think this is definitely happening," says Waickman.