GOP senators slam State Dept. for massive delays in applications, renewals
As international travel restrictions slowly start to lift in the weeks ahead and airlines gradually schedule more overseas flights, there’s still one thing that could stop many U.S. travelers from going abroad again: the lack of a passport.
While most U.S. Government offices are still working during the pandemic, passport-processing operations at the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs have come to a virtual halt in recent weeks, and anyone hoping to get their new or renewed passport for a trip later this year might be disappointed.
The agency stopped working on applications on March 19 as it shut down most of its offices, and since then has only been processing passports for citizens who need a passport within the next 72 hours to deal with a “life-or-death emergency,” i.e. a serious injury, illness or death of an immediate family member. And for the hundreds of thousands have an application in the pipeline, the wait for a new document could be several months.
According to the Washington D.C. publication The Hill, seven Republican U.S. Senators have sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that the Passport Agency get back to work and start to eliminate the huge backlog of applications. (It is pretty unusual to see Republican senators criticize the Trump administration — that’s a sign of how serious this is.)
“This is a vitally important function of the federal government that directly affects the lives, plans, and finances of millions of Americans, so it is important for the Department to get this right,” the letter said. The senators noted that the cessation of work on applications had resulted in “an overwhelming backlog of 1.6 million files in just 10 weeks, with an average of 9,000 new applications each day that are not being even partially processed or reviewed.” The letter called the situation “unacceptable.”
The agency has a plan for the gradual resumption of work in phases during the months ahead, which was presented to congressional staffers a few weeks ago, but the senators’ letter blasted this plan as “totally inadequate… It contains no innovative steps or processes to reduce the backlog. Simply resuming operations and processing applications at a normal pace until the Bureau of Consular Affairs is caught up is not an acceptable approach.”
The letter also urged the State Department to issue refunds to citizens who paid extra for expedited processing of passport applications or renewals since March 19, because those have been suspended as well.
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In a recent update posted on its website, the State Department says it can’t resume work on passport applications until its offices reopen due to the sensitive nature of personal information involved in the process. That means its staffers can’t work from home on applications.
“Passport applications must be adjudicated in our facilities to protect customers’ personally identifiable information and ensure the integrity of the application process,” the department said. “We maintain the highest standards of security and privacy protection for our customers and must secure sensitive documents like birth certificates and naturalization certificates in our offices. We must also physically print and mail passport books and cards back to customers from our facilities. We are preparing to have more employees return to our agencies and centers in phases and will immediately work to finalize pending applications.”
Anyone with an application in the pipeline who goes online to get an estimate of when they might expect their passport will likely be disappointed.
“If you applied or renewed after March 19, 2020, your application status may be ‘Not Found,’ the agency’s website says. “We cannot update this status until our staff return to our facilities across the country. If you applied or renewed before March 19, 2020, your application status may be ‘In Process,’ which means the application is with the Department of State and we will continue reviewing it when our staff return to our facilities across the country…We will not be able to update these ‘Not Found’ and ‘In Process’ status messages until additional staff return to our agencies and centers across the country.”
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Chris McGinnis is SFGATE’s senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE biweekly email updates!
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