Local officials are urging the federal government to put staff in Juneau to provide citizenship and immigration services.
The new Department of Homeland Security absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service on March 1, splitting its duties among three new bureaus. The switch has brought concerns that Juneau residents might need to travel to Anchorage for immigration and citizenship services, according to a resolution approved by the Juneau Assembly last week.
Bernadette Nocerino-Doody, interim district director of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in Anchorage, said nothing has changed for now.
"We may try to get another position in the field to accomplish what we need to serve the public," she said. "Right now, we're in the status quo, doing exactly what we have in the past until the classification of the positions have changed out."
Gary Staebell, an inspector with the new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Juneau, said local services remain the same.
"Right now nothing has changed except the way we answer the phone," he said. "People can still come in here for all the services they had in the past."
The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services handles citizenship cases, makes adjustments to people's immigration status and has employment authorization documents, which allow people to work while a case is pending, Nocerino-Doody said.
Such services have been provided by Immigration and Naturalization Services staff in Juneau who had other duties, and staff who traveled from Anchorage or Ketchikan periodically, Nocerino-Doody said. Current plans call for Anchorage staff to travel to Juneau, although the bureau should know more by this summer, she said.
"In Alaska, we're territory large and staff short," she said. "If we can add people to the field we will try to. We hope to get positions for Ketchikan, Juneau and Kodiak."
The Juneau Assembly has urged the Department of Homeland Security to assign a staff member in Juneau to deal with citizenship and immigration services. People who move to Juneau from the Philippines, Mexico and other countries need the bureau's help, the Assembly's resolution said.
Permanent staff "is clearly needed in Juneau to provide a reasonable level of service, and regular temporary staffing is needed to provide minimal service," said the resolution, which was requested by Assembly member Ken Koelsch, who works for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services also arranges naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. More than 40 people likely will attend the next ceremony in Juneau on May 16, Nocerino-Doody said. People were told they could go to Anchorage if they didn't want to wait, she said.
"We always go to Juneau and do the ceremony," she said.
Some changes already are visible. Robin Bronen, program director for Immigration and Refugees Services at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, said signs at the old INS office in Anchorage tell people immigration forms aren't available.
Bronen, who travels to Juneau four times a year to work with clients, also questions the concept of having one person conduct investigations and provide immigration services in remote Alaska locations.
"A significant reason for disbanding of INS was because Congress didn't want both (functions) housed in one agency or one person," she said. "People may go there seeking assistance and end up deported."
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.