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.

No details on the criteria

But the company admits to being frustrated by the lack of information on the bidding process. After losing the contract, they were told only that new regulations required 9-foot ceilings for the lease. The ceilings of the current building are 8 feet.

“We were surprised to see that they were going to that new area,” said Dean Freeman, a senior vice president for Frauenshuh. “I wish I could say why GSA has the criteria that they do.”

Adding to the confusion are the enigmatic owners of the new building, who were awarded the contract to provide up to 39,998 square feet of office space.

Records show Davenport, Iowa-based Bloomingsa Venture LLC registered with the Iowa secretary of state in July last year, was awarded the $14.3 million contract by the GSA in August, and bought the building for $1.9 million from the Minnesota School of Business/Globe University in September. Calls for comment to Bloomingsa Venture’s principals in Davenport and Overland Park, Kan., were not returned.

Route to citizenship

For Elizaveta Iouchavaev, the route to becoming an American was on the 54 bus.

The 48-year-old native of Kazakhstan came to Minnesota in 2005 by way of Israel. She and her husband lived in Corcoran and drove to the Bloomington immigration offices. But after the couple divorced and she was living in St. Paul, she became skilled in the art of public transit.

“I looked up on computer how to get there and which bus to use,” she said. “It was not hard to find, yeah. I felt very independent.”

She took the bus to take her naturalization test and recently became a U.S. citizen. Iouchavaev now hopes to get citizenship for her 15-year-old and 16-year-old sons.

“If there is no bus, there is a big problem,” she said. “I can’t take taxi because it is very expensive. If I ask my friends, it’s hard to find anybody because they are working.”

Options for the future

Klobuchar expressed concerns to the GSA’s top administrator two weeks ago. A spokesman said the Minnesota Democrat urged the GSA to work with Metro Transit to address the access problems. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin also has been involved. Metro Transit has no plans to add a route to the new office.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said a group of immigration lawyers is seeking legal advice about whether the lease could be voided because it violates the government’s own requirements.

It’s not the first time the GSA has faced criticism over such a move. Last year the same issue arose over a move from inner-city Pittsburgh to an outlying area.

“They already have crossed oceans and time zones, leaving their homes for a chance at a new life,” wrote the Pittsburgh City Paper. “Now immigrants who come to Pittsburgh must brave yet another alien world.”