The passport backlog is tearing families apart

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Imagine this: you receive a call from a loved one across the world who’s fallen ill, and you find out they only have a month left to live — suddenly it hits you, at that very moment you could be hearing their final goodbyes. You spend upwards of thousands of dollars planning travel to see them for what might be the last time, to share one final conversation, and one final hug goodbye.

But then it hits you. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it never occurred to you to have your passport renewed — money was already tight as it was, and nobody was traveling anywhere any time soon. The world came to a stop with no immediate reopening in sight, so why add the financial strain? As the world reopens, you’re now rushing through the renewal process, expediting your request as much as you can, paying hundreds of dollars you can barely afford to cover every single fee you can just to see them one last time.

But you’re told no matter what you do, or how much you indebt yourself to make it happen, you’ll still have to wait over three months to have your passport renewed. You’re stuck with thousands of dollars in travel plans down the drain, and the heartache of knowing you’ll never see your loved one again — all because of a bureaucratic nightmare and rampant mismanagement.

This isn’t a story of what if — it’s a story of what is. And it’s the forlorn story of too many of my own grief-stricken constituents who now carry a looming guilt; a guilt that they couldn’t get there in time.  

This nightmare has left so many Americans feeling helpless, with no one to turn to other than their elected representatives in Congress — but even we are fighting an uphill battle. My office alone receives upwards of 15 calls about this very issue daily, with many constituents still begging for any semblance of help even after sending in applications months ago. Even in the direst of circumstances, in-person emergency passport appointments have been few and far between, leaving so many of my residents in a never-ending state of limbo.

What’s more, my staff have found it increasingly difficult to contact any Passport Agency staff that could help resolve these cases. While some Passport Agency staff have been helpful and responsive, we are finding that’s not always the case — and this is unacceptable. With countless of my constituents being told wait times have ballooned to 20+ weeks, this has grown to be a crisis of monstrous proportions.

If I can do nothing else to quell this catastrophe, I’ll use my voice — because the time for action is long overdue.

I recently wrote to Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs Ian G. Brownlee about this and made clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Constituents who come to my office for help are desperate, poised to lose so much: thousands in travel expenses, and for so many, the last goodbye to those they love the most.

Even worse, in all this confusion and desperation, bad actors have snagged sought-after passport appointments and are auctioning them off on social media, creating a passport renewal black market. I’ve even heard of constituents of mine so desperate for appointments that they’ve paid upwards of $200 just to get one — and employees within the State Department’s Passport Agencies are complicit in this scheme.

Let me say this: I well understand that the pandemic introduced unprecedented challenges, but at no point did the federal government ever shut down and stop serving the American people. There were never significantly reduced staffing levels, or lapses in appropriations for government agencies. After the year we have all had, it’s unfair that the American people should suffer at the hands of bureaucratic stalemate and mismanagement.

They deserve better.

I pledge to continue working as hard as possible to remedy this crisis as best I can and ensure my constituents are responded to with the respect and haste they deserve — because no one should have to forfeit that last goodbye. 

Keep the faith. 

Espaillat represents the 13th District and is a member of the Appropriations Committee. 

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