Twin Cities' new U.S. immigration building lacking bus service

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 10, 2014 - 10:36 AM

What federal officials thought was a bus route for new location was really a commuter line without regular stops.

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For immigrants with legal status, a bus stop is within a block of the current U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service offices housed near the Mall of America. brick building, second from right, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Bloomington, MN.](DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE) djoles@startribune.com Hundreds of immigrants who have had an easy bus ride to the US Customs and Immigration Services office to get green cards and visas will soon have to figure out how to get to the new federal immigration office that accidentally moved way off a bus line. The USCIS thought they saw a bus line on a map near the new building they’ve leased, but it’s a commuter route from Chaska. Immigrants and advocates are outraged, but apparently the feds say it’s too late to fix.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For more than two decades, thousands of immigrants have stepped off a Metro Transit bus and walked a hundred yards or so to a nondescript building near the Mall of America, where they have been able to apply for a green card, petition to get a relative into the United States or take the test to become an American citizen.

In subzero temperatures, the short walk has often brought new meaning to the phrase “huddled masses.”

But with little local public input and because of a mistake that even it acknowledges, the federal government will move its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices 11 miles away later this year.

In violation of its own policies that require easy access to public transportation, the new building will be 3 miles from the closest bus stop.

The federal General Services Administration, which coordinated the negotiations for the new lease, discovered the bus route they looked at was actually a commuter line without regular stops throughout the day. They now admit to being “deeply dismayed” to discover the mistake.

But the 10-year, $14.3 million contract had been signed. Construction was continuing this week on the former site of the Minnesota School of Business on Ensign Avenue in Bloomington.

The move, which is expected in September, has raised the ire of immigration attorneys and advocates, who say many of their clients must rely on public transportation to get to the center. They fear the new location will result in missed appointments. It has also caused confusion in commercial real estate circles over how the contract was awarded.

“It will have a tremendously negative impact in terms of people having access to the services,” said immigration lawyer Brian Aust, who said the public should have been consulted.

Face to face

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Bloomington is the face-to-face field 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, which now share four floors of the same building at 2901 Metro Dr., across Interstate 494 from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

ICE and the Immigration Court are expected to move to the newly renovated Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building near Fort Snelling. When the GSA, the procurement arm of the federal government, could not find enough government-owned space for Citizenship and Immigration in the Whipple Building, it began a search of commercial real estate. Included in its requirements was one that the building must be within a half-mile of a rail or bus stop.

After four market surveys, the GSA finally awarded the lease to the lowest bidder. Only later did the GSA discover that the only transit stop within a walkable mile of the building is for a Southwest Metro Transit bus that runs only on commuter hours.

“We were deeply dismayed to discover that the transit stop located near the building did not provide routine scheduled service,” GSA Regional Administrator Ann Kalayil wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in January.

No good alternative

The alternative for people is to take the bus to a stop 3 miles away and use Metro Transit’s Dial-A-Ride service from there. That requires a call ahead of one to five days, and demands more planning and flexibility than a regular bus route.

The property management company for the current building, local commercial real estate giant Frauenshuh, says it lobbied hard to keep the immigration services and describes the federal government as valued tenants.

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