The Baltimore office in which federal officials grant citizenship to immigrants is moving to its own building on the city's outskirts, where it will no longer be housed with the agency that deports people.
The Maryland office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and its more than 120 workers will open the new facility Jan. 15, ending its 12-year tenure in the G.H. Fallon Federal Building.
Officials say the agency needs to establish its own identity and relationship with the immigrant community. The new facility, they say, will create a better experience for the 15,000 immigrants who are naturalized by the agency each year and the 5,000 more who apply for green cards.
At the federal plaza near the city, demonstrators staged protests against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security agency that apprehends, detains and deports people in the country illegally, in front of the same building where immigrants seek green cards.
The new building, housed in an office park off Interstate 95 and Joh Avenue in Violetville, greets visitors with murals of an American flag and the Statue of Liberty.
"It's exactly the story that we want to show," Baltimore field office director Conrad Zaragoza said.
Immigrant advocates say they pushed for the move for years and are welcoming it.
"It was in a really scary location for people," said Kim Propeack, political director for the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland. "Many, if not most families, are of mixed [immigration] status. Families could have one person processing their citizenship papers and their spouse could be deported out the back door."
More than resolving appearances, the new facility, built into the shell of a former Verizon service center, resolves a host of logistic problems.
The downtown location divides the agency among five different floors. On some floors, co-workers were dispersed to distant corners of the building. District director Greg Collett said that creates inefficiency, not only in shuttling the paper immigration files from one spot to another but also forcing the agency to buy copy machines, for example, to outfit each mini-satellite office.
Visitors have to pay about $20 per day for parking and wait in lines outdoors with everyone else trying to get through security and into a building that hosts 17 other agencies. In early spring, an individual hoping to apply for a fiance's visa, for example, would have to join long lines with visitors waiting to see the Internal Revenue Service during the busy tax season.
The scattered offices have also given rise to multiple waiting areas on different floors and a requirement that visitors be escorted from one part of the building to another, including to ceremonies welcoming them as citizens of the United States.
"Naturalization is one of our oldest traditions in the country," Collett said. "The room is rather worn, and people needed to be escorted by guards, which presents a challenge and an image by itself. This will have a community feel. … We can give more dignity to the event."
The new facility not only has everything in one place, its centerpiece is the much bigger room for the naturalization ceremonies that are performed at least four times per week.
When fully outfitted, it will have modern television and audio capabilities. The message from President Barack Obama, currently played on a television that's rolled out on an audiovisual cart for the occasion, will be projected on a screen.
Zaragoza, the field office director, said the room will eventually be adorned with photos from naturalization ceremonies in Baltimore stretching as far back into the city's history as possible. Baltimore was traditionally the second-biggest port of entry for immigrants, Zaragoza said, after Ellis Island in New York.
Each immigration interview will be conducted in private, soundproofed office. Currently, some such interviews are conducted in open cubicles.
The new counters in the intake area are wide enough to seat two people, and low enough for applicants to sit. They currently stand while waiting to be served.
The move is scheduled for Jan. 6-15. Workers will pack up the offices and move them in 28 tractor-trailers to the new place.