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Passport backlog threatens to upend travel plans for millions of Americans
Millions of Americans hoping to renew their passports and travel abroad this summer could see their plans dashed by a massive backlog caused by staffing shortages at the State Department.
The delays are compounding frustrations for would-be travelers looking to take vacations or visit loved ones who are barred from entering the U.S. because of ongoing restrictions tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
Congressional staff say their offices are being inundated with complaints and pleas from constituents over the wait time for passports. The State Department said in a briefing Wednesday that processing could take up to 18 weeks.
Lawmakers are now getting involved.
The top members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday calling for the State Department to "prioritize efforts to reduce processing time for passport applications."
"As more and more employees are able to safely return to work, and with demand for passports surging, it is critical that the Department use all available tools to reduce extended processing times, including strategies developed to address past passport backlogs," wrote Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman and ranking member of the committee.
The delays largely stem from the State Department's reduced in-person workforce that resulted from COVID-19 restrictions.
The backlog now numbers as many as 2 million passport applications, for new ones and renewals, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt told reporters in a briefing Wednesday.
"That is somewhat higher than what we would normally expect to see," Arndt said, adding that application volume grew alongside vaccination rates in the U.S.
Much of the processing has to be done with staff physically present in the office, said Arndt, adding that the State Department is bringing back more than 150 employees to help deal with the workload and will continue to increase that number.
"They are not processing remotely or from home," she said. "So we're maintaining very high standards of security and privacy protection for the customers, and we're securing their sensitive documents like their birth certificates and naturalization certificates in our offices. And, of course, the physical printing and mailing of the passport books and cards occurs from our facility."
Congressional offices in the past could often help constituents who were close to their departure and had an issue preventing them from getting their passport renewed. In those situations, lawmakers typically would write a letter to the State Department to get it expedited or to request a meeting to speed up the process.
Rep. Don Beyer's (D-Va.) office said that in 2019, it had 13 passport cases from constituents for the entire year. Now, it is receiving about 15 requests each day.
"Not only are we getting a huge number of cases; people are really worried, upset, angry because I think a lot of people really don't realize the extent to which lots and lots of people have not been able to travel and now are planning ahead," said Aaron Fritschner, a spokesman for Beyer who noted that congressional district consists of many federal employees, international travelers and Americans living abroad.
The State Department this month told congressional offices they will not be taking requests for the kinds of meetings they usually held in the past to expedite a passport. The agency will now do so only in cases involving life and death.
"Somebody had a family member who died and they were in a country in northern Africa and they needed to get home to go to a funeral, and that's the kind of thing that's getting considered. But people who don't have an emergency at that level, a lot of them are certainly having to undergo very, very stressful waits," Fritschner said.
The requests started piling up in late spring, but June and July "have just been absolutely brutal," he added.
McCaul spokeswoman Rachel Walker said their district offices are seeing a similar surge, going from just five cases in May to 119 in June.
"Some constituents who have reached [out] simply want to reconnect with friends and family on vacation, while some are trying to attend weddings or funerals. Others have missed work opportunities because they are unable to travel for a contracting job they were assigned," she said.
Some offices are trying to get the word out to constituents, warning them about the backlog before they face a time crunch.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) sent a newsletter to constituents at the end of June that highlighted the 18-week delay.
"As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift, and the world opens back up, Americans are beginning to travel again. Whether you are travelling this summer, or planning a future vacation, I want to be sure you have the most up to date information on needed international travel documents," he said in the newsletter.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) took to Twitter to alert his constituents.
"Utahns who have not applied for a passport and are traveling in less than 12 weeks will likely need to request a walk-in appointment at a nearby passport office. However, this is done within 72 hours of travel-that's why it's important to start the application process early," he tweeted.
The State Department is warning people against using third-party appointment booking services, noting they have seen numerous instances of falsified appointment bookings through some vendors.
"The Department of State does not charge a fee to solely book an emergency appointment at one of our agencies or centers, so if anyone receives a request for payment for scheduling a U.S. passport appointment, that should be considered fraudulent," Arndt told reporters.