The world is finally opening up and travelers are eager to head overseas this summer after more than a year of travel opportunities curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bags are packed and flights are booked, but travelers are finding an unexpected hitch in their plans: expired passports.
The State Department, which handles passport services, is experiencing major processing disruptions intensified by a deluge of U.S. travelers looking to go abroad as vaccination rates climb and restrictions ease.
According to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt, the agency is dealing with a backlog of 1.5 to 2 million applications, with wait times up to 18 weeks for both new and renewal passport applications. Expedited passport applications, which cost an additional $60, are running behind schedule by as much as 12 weeks — far more than pre-pandemic processing time frames of two to three weeks for expedited applications and four to six weeks for regular applications.
Scarsdale High School alumnae Nicole Silberberg, a rising junior at Cornell University, is among those affected by the processing delay. She had to abandon her plans to apply for a Hasbara fellowship, which would have taken her on a 15-day journey through Israel in August, because her mother noticed Silberberg’s passport had expired in September 2020.
Silberberg made two appointments at the post office in Mamaroneck and contacted Assembly member Amy Paulin’s office seeking help, to no avail. With no way to speed up the process, Silberberg she said she decided to set up a passport renewal appointment at the post office and apply for the fellowship in the winter instead.
“It’s a little disappointing,” said Silberberg, who won’t be guaranteed a spot for the Hasbara program in the winter.
Passport problems have also cropped up for first time passport applicants, those under the age of 16 and those who want to renew a passport they received when they were under the age of 16 — all of whom are required to apply in person at a passport acceptance facility, such as a post office, court clerk’s office, public library or local government office.
Scarsdale resident Neha Pahwa experienced delays while trying to get a passport for her newborn daughter. With family in India, Pahwa said she wanted to keep her U.S.-based family members’ passports current, in case they needed to travel for an emergency. When she and her husband went to the Central Avenue post office branch on May 11, they were told their daughter’s passport would be ready in two weeks; eight weeks later and they still haven’t received it.
“We waited for those two weeks, and then eight weeks later … we got mail from the passport services [saying] that we submitted the application with no signature,” Pahwa said. “For a minor, you have to sign in front of the passport agent, so we were damn sure we signed, but we got this letter [claiming] the signature was missing, and it didn't tell whether it was [the signature of] the mother or father.”
The couple returned to the post office with their child and made a new application, but they may not receive the passport for a couple more months.
“They told me it is still in the process, and it should take another eight weeks, maybe two to three weeks more,” Pahwa said. “It has never taken so long. I remember with my older daughter, we got the passport in two weeks, [but] it's been more than 10 weeks and we’re still waiting.”
As long as they had their passport issued when they were over the age of 16 and within the last 15 years, anyone who wants to renew can fill out Form DS-82 and send it in without having to go to a passport acceptable facility. The wait to receive the document, however, is up to 18 weeks.
People with urgent travel plans (leaving within 72 hours or a life or death travel emergency) can schedule an appointment at a passport agency, though appointments are “extremely limited,” according to Arndt.
The number of appointments has been so limited that Facebook groups have popped up for people to discuss the entire passport renewal process and swap appointments. From Miami to Buffalo and Tucson to Dallas, people are struggling to score an appointment and are even offering to pay to grab someone else’s appointment.
Arndt said the U.S. Department of State is aware of people selling passport appointments and is working to prevent it, because that practice could be considered fraud.
Greenburgh resident Millee Roper said she’s distressed as the August departure date is fast approaching for her family’s trip to Cancun to celebrate her daughter’s 21st birthday. She said she’s been waiting since May to receive her daughter’s renewed passport, but a notice she received July 3 said the document would arrive on or around July 10. As of July 20, she still hadn’t received it.
“This is special to my daughter … her college friends [are] going, all of her family is going,” said Roper, who has been in contact with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office to resolve the issue. “I’m nervous now.”
Elected officials are trying to help manage the passport overflow. Paulin told the Inquirer her office had received half a dozen calls about passports, which is more than she had ever received. People have been pleading for Paulin’s help, she said, but passports are handled at the federal level and therefore are out of her jurisdiction. Paulin said she has been acting as an intermediary between congress members and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to find solutions for residents’ passport problems.
“Government should be leading by example, and this is an instance where we really need our elected officials at the federal level to step up and help our constituents,” she said.
Federal elected officials, who often try to help expedite constituents’ passports, have been taking notice after receiving a surge of passport requests.
U.S. Congressman Jamaal Bowman, who represents District 16 including Scarsdale, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and a portion of the Bronx, told the Inquirer his office received approximately 200 passport cases in June, up from the 30 to 40 cases his office received in the first six months of the year. He said his office has been able to “expedite a few” of the cases.
“It’s the imperfect storm,” said Bowman. “You have travel restrictions lifted, more people vaccinated, people are wanting to return home for all the reasons they always do … and then you have the United States Postal Service and the passport office underresourced, underfunded and kind of not ready for it.”
As a short-term solution, Bowman said the federal government should look to hire hundreds more people in the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Postal Service by next week to steady the rising turnaround times.
“The point is we need personnel,” he said.
Arndt said the Department of State has been bringing back remote workers and “surging” staff to meet the high demand. Passport agency staff returned for in-person work in 17 cities as of July 12, but five facilities are still waiting for approval to completely open.
On July 12, the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken requesting that the department prioritize efforts to reduce passport application processing times.
Surrounded by several constituents dealing with passport troubles, Schumer in a press conference July 18 called on the Department of State to add emergency personnel to process passports and visas, citing the thousands of New Yorkers who were stuck in “passport purgatory” — missing weddings, business trips, birthdays and reunions with loved ones they haven’t seen due to the pandemic.
“[The Department of State] has very good, trained personnel and all they have to do is shift several hundred over to this division on a temporary basis [to] make the backlog go away. That’s all we’re asking,” said Schumer. “We know COVID caused a lot of problems and the nation shut down, but now the nation is opening up and so must the State Department’s visa and passport division.”
Schumer, the U.S. Senate majority leader, said he would fight to provide a temporary increase in funding for the Department of State if needed.
“They don’t have to wait for Congress to pass something,” said Schumer. “They should put the personnel on the job, and we’ll make up for it in the next budget reconciliation bill.”
— With reporting by Amy Bochner
This is a very timely article, but I am skeptical as to the source of the problem. I just paid $214 ($188 Passport Fee + $26 Postage) for 'expedited' processing to renew my passport, with a State Department 'commitment' of 12 weeks (3 months), compared to a renewal fee in 1996 of $85. Good that inflation is so low, and but the State Department hasn't viewed citizen travel as a priority in a long time. The result is that I cannot commit to teach a seminar in Europe in the fall, not to mention the bad press the US is continuing to get for obstruction of international commerce due to an onerous set of banking regulations (FATCA), intended to block money laundering, but in fact motivating European banks to turn away US customers whenever they can, due to excessive reporting requirements and huge fines for non-conformance. I do hope we return soon to being a role model for democracy, efficient capitalism and just law.... (Michael Otten, Stonehouse Road, Scarsdale)
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