Bowing to pressure, the federal government is reversing a plan to move a vital immigration office to the outskirts of Bloomington, 3 miles from the closest bus stop.
In a rare case where it admitted making a mistake, the General Services Administration will move other government services to the new building and keep its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office at its current location near the Mall of America and mass transit.
The plan to move the immigration office became the subject of intense criticism from local elected officials and immigration advocates who were concerned that the new location would make it difficult for many immigrants to obtain services they need for such things as work visas and citizenship papers.
"This is what everyone wanted," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who coordinated several meetings with federal authorities and immigration advocates. "The people we are talking about are not hiding from the law. They are working with our immigration services and doing exactly what they are supposed to do, and they are supposed to somehow get there when they don't have a car. It makes no sense at all."
After the initial decision was announced, Klobuchar peppered the heads of various agencies, including, most recently, the new head of Homeland Security. Several members of the state's congressional delegation urged the feds to put the brakes on the plan. Throughout the process, the GSA appeared unlikely to reverse its course. Its latest suggestion had been to start a shuttle service from the closest bus stop.
Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, all D-Minn., introduced legislation that would require the GSA to take transit into account when searching for new venues.
Despite the decision, Ellison said he still has concerns about how the process worked out with the GSA and its regional office, including a lack of transparency in the original bidding process. Phone calls and meetings with the GSA were canceled without explanation, he said. "I just hope this is not some sort of systemic problem that needs to be addressed," Ellison said.
In violation of its own policies that require easy access to public transportation, the GSA set the site of the new building 3 miles from the closest bus stop. The GSA has admitted it misread a bus schedule in reviewing applications. What it thought was a bus route for the new location was really a commuter line without regular stops.
The 10-year, $14.3 million contract had been signed and the move was expected in September for the former site of the Minnesota School of Business on Ensign Avenue in Bloomington, near the Eden Prairie border.
Contract to be rebid
The GSA will now rebid the contract for the immigration office, with the clear stipulation that the building be within a half-mile of a rail or bus stop. Employees from other government agencies that do not require as much contact with the public will be filtered in to the new building, a move that Klobuchar said she was told might actually save money.
Meantime, the immigration office will remain in its current location on Metro Drive near the Mall of America. The GSA said in a statement that it hopes to begin the new bidding process this year and that initially it will seek locations within the central business districts of the Twin Cities to assure accessibility to public transportation.
As the GSA renews its bid process, advocates hope to have more say.
"This is a location where people become U.S. citizens. They reunite with family members who have been separated from them for long lengths of time," said John Keller, executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Law Center. "Basically, it's the historic moment where you begin to become an American. In Minnesota, we value these folks, and I think we should put it in a place that celebrates the importance of coming to Minnesota."
A crucial location
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Bloomington is the face-to-face location where immigrants go for interviews, to pick up forms and to ask general questions about their resident status.
Last year, it saw about 28,000 people who scheduled interviews, used its information center or came to pick up citizenship certificates. It processed more than 13,000 applications for naturalization in 2013. It serves all of Minnesota and the Dakotas and a large swath of western Wisconsin.
The office handles more cases than its more visible law enforcement counterparts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Immigration Court, both of which are moving to renovated offices at the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building near Fort Snelling.