June 12, 2007 at 8:00 AM ET
With so much fighting going on about people who want to get into the country, we didn't realize how hard it is to get out. Chaos at the U.S. Passport office has left thousands of travelers stranded stateside, many of them holding useless airplane and cruise tickets -- a situation one critic calls "reverse Ellis Island."
The irony isn't lost on Tarina Oliver, who last week canceled a trip to the Dominican Republic when her passport didn't arrive on time. Oliver, 43, had planned to visit her sister, Camille Tillinghast, who's teaching English for a year to kindergarten students on the poor island. Oliver also was going to bring her 4-year-old daughter Josephine to give her a chance to experience life in a very different place.
"The opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic doesn't come around too often," Oliver said. Now, the opportunity appears to be gone, doomed by red tape.
Oliver is no procrastinator. She applied for her passport on March 26 for a trip that was going to begin June 2. At the time, the official at the post office where she submitted her application said she would have "no problem" getting her passports in time. In fact, he recommended against paying extra for expedited treatment.
Oliver spent the last month frantically trying to get word on the missing passports, and landed in a quagmire worthy of a Kafka novel. For travelers leaving within 14 days, the passport office advises citizens to get an in-person appointment at a local office. To do that, you must call a toll-free number. But when you call, you hear a five-minute recorded message that pleads for patience, advising callers that there is unprecedented demand for passports. At the end of that message, the recording says no one is available to answer the phone, and tells listeners to try again later, perhaps between midnight and 8 a.m.
"I tried that," Oliver said. "I never got through."
Some applicants are storming passort offices around the country anyway -- but that's not a great option for people like Oliver. There's only 13 regional passport offices that are really equipped to solve problems, and they are only in large cities like Washington D.C. and Seattle. Most people like Oliver apply at "passport acceptance facilities" like local post offices. A visit to these offices will net troubled applications little more than blank stares.
So for now, Oliver and her daughter are trapped inside the U.S. borders, victims of increased security procedures designed to keep dangerous people out.
Avalanche of new applications blamed
The Passport Services Office at the State Department blames an avalanche of applications filed earlier this year for the mess. Because of new rules requiring passports for North American travel, applications are up about 37 percent, the office says. Last year, 12.1 million passports were issued; this year, the agency is on pace to issue 17 million.
While that's a sharp increase, it was completely predictable. The passport reform was mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. Soon after, the State Department announced the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires passports for travel to places like Mexico and the Caribbean.
By stranding travelers like Oliver, the State Department has shown it cannot handle the demands of increased security. After all, if the office's computers and personnel cannot handle a completely predictable increase in passport applications, how can it be expected to keep out terrorists?
e-Passports to blame?
The passport chaos raises other important questions. A 37 percent increase is not a 300 percent increase. Yet many citizens are reporting that passports aren't arriving until three months or more have passed. That's a three-fold increase over wait times a year ago. How did things get that bad, that fast?
Late last year, the State Department began issuing snazzy new passports that include a small computer chip loaded with personal information about the traveler. The chips are supposed to make the documents harder to forge. They can beam data through radio waves to passport readers, which should speed up immigration lines. But there was great debate around the chips -- computer security experts warned that the chips can be hacked and that would-be imposters could lift data from them without even touching the traveler. Debate on the security of the chips is ongoing. (As is debate on enhancements to many government-issued IDs; click to see our 'Privacy Lost' special report.)
State Department spokesman Steve Royster said the changeover to new passports, called "e-Passports," had nothing to do with the problems. So far, the agency has issued 3.7 million chip-enabled passports since August – meaning most passports issued so far this year have been the traditional kind – but now nearly every new passport is an e-Passport, Royster said.
Barring some other explanation, it's hard to imagine this major change has had no impact on passport delays. And one has to wonder if the chip-enabled passports -- designed to one day carry biometric information like fingerprints – can be trusted to an agency which can't even answer the phone.
On Friday, the State Department announced it would relax passport rules for North American travelers. A passport application receipt, printed from the Web, and a government-issued ID card, will be honored as travel documents.
Now, there's the advanced security we've been waiting for.
The relaxed rules won't help Oliver, however. She sent her child's birth certificate in with the passport application. Without that, she has little hope of getting a state ID card from the motor vehicles department for her daughter, which she'd need to satisfy the new rules.
The rules change also doesn't help anyone hoping to travel anywhere else in the world. Without a passport, you're still trapped inside the country.
All hope is not lost for Oliver, however. Her sister, Camille, doesn't leave the Dominican Republic until later this month. If the missing passports arrive in time, Oliver and her daughter could book another flight. She'd have to pay large ticket change penalties, but at least she wouldn't lose the entire value of the tickets.
We should tell you that Oliver's sister, Camille, is married to MSNBC.com's president and publisher, Charles Tillinghast. That's how this story landed on my desk. But Oliver is one of only thousands of victims facing passport panic.
The best collection of complaints I found was on the WhirldView blog, published by a retired foreign service officer named Patricia Kushlis. She's been tracking the passport problems since February.
"Seems to me the whole process needs a major revamp, a reality check at the top," Kushlis said. She's the one who has taken to calling the passport bottleneck a "reverse Ellis Island."
Red Tape Wrestling Tips
1) The only thing that really works, Kushlis said, is calling your local congressional representative and appealing for help. Every House and Senate member has a staffer who deals with passport problems. Call the office and speak directly to that staffer, Kushlis said. Many of her readers have had success that way, but of course, it's not guaranteed.
2) Apply early. You'd be well served to give the State Department four full months to turn around your application. If you have a passport, check now to see it it's expiring in the next year and don't put off the paperwork.
3) If you are desperate, there are "passport expediters" who will get you faster turnaround for an extra fee of $100 or more. You can find one by doing an Internet search for "passport expediters." These agents are not affiliated with the government, however, and paying them could be risky. Tread this ground with care.
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