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Passport seekers inundate office

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES Frantic travelers stood outside the District's regional passport office yesterday awaiting passports as a Senate committee took the Bureau of Consular Affairs to task for its slow response to unprecedented demand.

Bunny Lawrence and her daughter Cameron drove to the District from Greenville, N.C. — with a stop in Richmond last night to pick up a certified copy of a birth certificate — to get a passport for a trip to France tomorrow.

The $138 hotel room in Richmond, six-hour drive, fuel costs and two missed days of work were the least of their worries as they waited. They have had friends miss trips because they didn't get passports in time and they didn't want the same fate.

The Lawrences got an appointment yesterday by calling Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they have been inundated with similar frantic calls and have had trouble themselves getting through to passport offices. There is now a line outside the passport office exclusively for people with letters from their congressmen.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative prompted unprecedented passport demand that has overwhelmed the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The program made it mandatory for U.S. citizens to carry the document to return from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Phase one, covering air travel, has been postponed until Sept. 30. Phase two, covering land and sea crossings, is scheduled to go into effect in January. But the House last week postponed that to June 1, 2009, because of the problems implementing phase one.

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty took responsibility for the massive delays in getting a passport and told the committee that the wait for a non-expedited passport should be down from 12 to eight weeks by Sept. 30. Wait times should be back to six weeks — the typical length before the September 11, 2001-prompted changes went into effect — by the end of the year.

About 2.95 million passports — about eight weeks worth of work — are pending, she said.

She also promised that the administration will be "very flexible" when it comes to implementing the land and sea portion of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Nonetheless, the committee dug into the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

"It's caused a great deal of consternation," said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, who led yesterday's hearing.

"The State Department has had over two years to plan for and implement the new policy for requiring passports for traveling to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean," said Mr. Nelson, whose office has received more than 1,000 requests for help getting a passport. "We want to know who is accountable and why this mess has happened."

The bureau expected to receive 16.2 million passport applications in fiscal 2007, which ends Sept. 30. But it is on pace to receive 17.7 million, Ms. Harty said.

"We simply did not anticipate American citizens' willingness to comply so quickly," she said, adding that 5.4 million passport applicants rushed the system from January to March, far more than anticipated.

The bureau hired 2,588 additional employees since 2005, she said.

Mr. Nelson urged the bureau — going so far as to suggest the committee would introduce legislation — to issue refunds to travelers who paid $60 extra for expedited passport service but did not receive it. Expedited passports are supposed to arrive within two to three weeks.

Ms. Harty said refunds are available on a case-by-case basis if travelers apply and would look into making refunds easier to obtain.

A refund won't make up for the approximately 12 hours Lisa Clearwood of Middletown, Md., has spent trying to get passports for herself and her two children to visit her husband, who is stationed in Germany with the Navy.

She, too, turned to her congressman — Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican — to get a passport when the ones she applied for in March had not come six days before her planned departure.

"I think it's so backlogged, the [implementation changes] aren't affecting us yet," she said two hours into her wait at the passport office yesterday.

Angelica Vasquez and daughter Yuriko called the process "ridiculous" as they waited to pick up their passports yesterday. On Monday, they got in line on 19th Street Northwest at 5:30 a.m. to wait for the doors to open and apply, despite applying in March.

"They weren't prepared," Angelica Vasquez said.