Menendez calls on Trump to bring home stranded Americans

Menendez calls on Trump to bring home stranded Americans
© Aaron Schwartz

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sunday called on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE to activate a reserve air fleet to bring home thousands of American travelers stranded in countries that have closed their borders to stem the spread of coronavirus around the world.

Senator Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO MORE (D-N.J.) asked the president to activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to fly evacuation missions.

“I write today to urge you to take all steps necessary to provide assistance to Americans abroad who wish to return to the United States during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic,” Menendez wrote in his letter to the president.

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“More forceful government action, including an aggressive approach by the State Department in arranging charter flights, invoking Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) authorities to make additional aircraft available for evacuations, and directing the Department of Defense to explore making military aircraft, where appropriate, available for this vital mission are all essential.”

The CRAF is a Defense Department program that partners with U.S. commercial airline companies to make about 30 percent of its air fleet available for emergency evacuations of people and about 15 percent of its air fleet for emergency cargo flights.

At least 553 aircraft are available for international passenger flights, according to the Air Force, with the majority available for flights considered long-distance. 

Tens of thousands of Americans are stuck in over a dozen countries that have shut down almost all air travel, land and sea crossings.

The State Department has struggled to provide actionable information for the majority of stranded Americans. A Repatriation Task Force was set up at the department at least 72 hours after the majority of countries shut their borders and on the same day the agency instituted a Level 4 travel alert, its most serious warning to Americans to avoid international travel and return to the U.S. immediately.

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The State Department last week flew over 3,000 Americans back from Morocco after the country closed its borders and has evacuated 439 Americans from Peru, the majority comprised of embassy personnel at increased health risk from coronavirus and peace corps volunteers.

The Department of Defense on Friday, meanwhile, dispatched C-130s to Morocco and Peru and a C-17 to Honduras for a stranded American women’s football team, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

But frustrated and scared Americans have criticized the U.S. government as failing to do more in the face of unprecedented travel challenges. They say instructions by the State Department to follow their embassy websites for updates and arrange independent commercial travel ignore the reality of the difficulties of the situation.

Approximately 2,400 Americans, but likely more, are waiting in Peru for more instruction on how to get home. They are fielding options of private charters that cost upward of $2,000 per person if not more, and unsure if their efforts to secure flights will go ahead without government securities.

Elected officials have raised the alarm that citizens stuck in over a dozen countries are feeling abandoned, unable to secure their return to the U.S. and victim to steep price gouging for any remaining flights.

The State Department  requires Americans who require evacuation abroad to reimburse the cost of a ticket if being flown out at the expense of the U.S. government. U.S. citizens evacuated from Morocco, for example, were required to sign a promissory pledge to reimburse at least $1,485 of travel costs.

“No American should ever have to worry that they might be abandoned abroad by our government. As we work together to confront this unprecedented pandemic, we must provide Americans overseas the support that they need,” Menendez wrote.

The senator also took to task U.S. airlines calling for a bailout amid the shutdown of international travel, saying their idle fleets should be poised for action. The industry group Airlines for America has asked Congress for nearly $30 billion in immediate assistance.

“At a time when U.S. commercial carriers are seeking unprecedented financial assistance from US taxpayers—and while much of the airline fleet is otherwise idle—we would expect that US airlines, including those participating in the CRAF program, will be willing and able to step into the breach and work with the Department of State to provide the necessary support to bring American citizens home,” Menendez wrote.

--This report was updated at 12:43 p.m.