Passport Rules Eased as Demand Grows

The State Department waives some passport regulations to ease backlogs on approvals. A record number of passport requests greeted a January decision to require passports for air travel to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.

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You might have heard some of the stories from across the nation about missed weddings or cancelled school trips all because of a passport crunch.

The State Department has been handling a record number of applications because since January Americans have needed passports to travel by air to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. The backlog is big. And members of Congress have been inundated with complaints, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: For Americans waiting for their passports, hoping to get them in time for their summer travels, this phone message might sound familiar.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: If you have already applied and will not need your passport within the next few weeks, there is no need to contact us. We are extremely busy but we are doing our best to make sure that no one misses a trip.

KELEMEN: The line of last resort is outside passport agencies like the one here in Washington.

Ms. CHRISTINA JARVIS(ph) (Resident, New York): Christina Jarvis from Fredonia, New York. It's been more than 11 weeks. I've had five congressional expediting requests, one expediting request from Clinton's office, and expediting request from the State Department. I guess we have a blessedly democratic system because even with all those requests, mine's not being processed any faster than anyone else's.

Ms. MELISSA PATTERSON(ph) (Resident, Roanoke, Virginia): I'm Melissa Patterson and I'm from Roanoke, Virginia. My father actually got somebody on the line who said it was still being processed in New Hampshire. But then the next time we called, well, after going through the whole your call is important to us but we can't take it right now. Please hang up and try again, we got a person and had to wait like another half hour to one hour. And finally got another person but they couldn't tell us anything.

KELEMEN: And when Becky Keevy(ph) got her member of Congress involved to find out if her daughter would get her passport in time to go on a mission trip to Honduras, here is what she heard.

Ms. BECKY KEEVY (Resident, Virginia): The passport is somewhere in New Hampshire in a lockbox with 600,000 other passports, so we had to do this. We're from Columbus, Ohio.

KELEMEN: Everyone in line here has a letter from their member of Congress and has spent more time and money than ever expected. Reading through redacted e-mails between congressional staffers and passport agency officials, it's easy to see the frustrations on the other side as well. Government officials have been putting in long hours and sometimes complaining about computer glitches.

Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, who's on the House Appropriations Committee, says she believes the government simply failed to plan. She raised this issue at a hearing back in March with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Representative BETTY McCOLLUM (Democrat, Minnesota): She said, yeah, we know there's a problem, we're working on it. Well, they've got a crisis now and it's only going to continue to get worse and the State Department has failed to come back to Congress and say we need help, we need more money, more staff; this is what we need in order to do what's right for the people we serve.

KELEMEN: The State Department has just inaugurated a new passport center in Arkansas and says it has issued a record number of passports so far this year -8.6 million of them. In another effort to ease the crunch, the U.S. relaxed rules about flying to Mexico, Canada, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

It told Americans to just print out a page proving they have applied for a passport. But Congresswoman McCollum says this is another example of poor planning.

Rep. McCOLLUM: If the State Department had really done its homework, it would have known what the Canadian government required. The Canadian government has its own requirements and it just isn't a printed piece of paper off of your computer with the State Department logo on it. They want birth certificates and Ids, and well they should; the same thing with the Mexican government.

KELEMEN: That information is on the State Department's Web site now but too late for some travelers who couldn't board flights in the past week. And this is still a problem for people who had to send away birth certificates with passport applications.

Congressman Thomas Reynolds, a New York Republican, has three or four staffers just working on the passport issue these days, and he's furious with the State Department's explanation that it didn't anticipate the sheer number of passport applications.

Representative THOMAS REYNOLDS (Republican, New York): The bottom line is it's - most of it's bureaucratic hogwash. If you're not getting the job done, you're not getting the job done.

KELEMEN: What worries him more is that the number of people applying for passports is only going to rise if as planned new rules go into effect in January requiring Americans to get passports to travel to Canada and Mexico by land.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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