Virus Delays Passports for 1.7 Million Americans

WASHINGTON — Sarah Farris, an American dwelling in Singapore, rushed to her dad and mom’ house in Florida in April to see her father earlier than he died. She is now caught, unable to return to her job, as a result of she has been unable to resume her expiring passport.

In Switzerland, Leslie Hansen has been ready since mid-March to resume her U.S. passport, which expired in May. Without it, she has no legitimate journey doc and solely a nondescript letter from the American Embassy in Bern to show her citizenship.

Even U.S. authorities staff are amongst what officers described on Friday as a backlog of 1.7 million Americans ready for passports after the State Department shut down most of its consular companies to guard its workers from contracting the coronavirus.

Jason Talley, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been ready since March to use for passports for his household to go on a $12,000 household trip this summer season to Europe that he booked in January.

“That’s the pit in my stomach, where I’m like, all that money’s gone,” mentioned Mr. Talley, who lives in Fredericksburg, Va., and saved for almost seven years to afford the holiday. He can’t fly with out the passports, and the price of his overseas airfares and different bookings are unlikely to be refunded.

This week, the State Department reopened 11 passport companies throughout the United States, within the hopes of processing about 200,000 functions every week, going again to February. But officers predicted it might nonetheless take as much as eight weeks — earlier than even beginning on new functions — to chop by the backlog as consular staff return in phases after months of working from house.

Over the final three months, officers have expedited passport functions solely for what Carl C. Risch, the division’s assistant secretary for consular affairs, described on Friday as life-or-death conditions.

Passport companies in American embassies and consulates overseas even have been suspended for all however pressing instances, and can reopen solely after well being situations in every host nation have been deemed protected for U.S. diplomats to return to work.

As many as two million Americans are abroad at anybody time. The State Department processes about 18 million passports yearly.

“We are aggressively increasing our processing capability, and doing everything we can do return to normal as quickly as possible,” Mr. Risch informed reporters on a convention name.

He cited a “tremendously unpredictable environment” and mentioned officers had been attempting to plan a greater course of if consular companies had been equally shuttered sooner or later.

The delicate steadiness of the best way to present U.S. residents with passports whereas safeguarding staff who course of them has confounded State Department officers throughout a pandemic that has all however paralyzed most routine consular companies.

The dilemma has been amplified by President Trump’s demand to “REOPEN OUR COUNTRY,” as he wrote on Twitter last month, and pressure on everything from churches to restaurants to restart serving Americans.

Ms. Farris, a guidance counselor at an American school in Singapore, said State Department consular officers had told her that she might not receive her new passport until September. Her requests to have it expedited so that she can return to her job have been denied.

“The grocery store is open. People are delivering the mail,” Ms. Farris said this week in an interview. “You put on a mask and you do social distancing. This seems like an essential service.”

Far more than a travel document, passports are necessary to Americans abroad to prove citizenship when foreign authorities demand identification for a range of legal issues, including immigration and residency. They also serve as a powerful badge of protection for Americans under threat and are meant to assure embassy representation when it is needed.

Given the access that American passports provide, and to guard against counterfeiting and stolen identities, the documents generally are processed in secure facilities in the United States.

In a letter last week, seven Republican senators urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to find a resolution since the department “has not taken steps to innovate or adapt to a remote working process for this particular function.”

Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, said the process “needs to be fixed long term.”

“Once flights reopen, once cross-border traffic reopens, we don’t need to have the government be the reason that they can’t actually move,” he said in an interview.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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The delay may have a silver lining for businesses in the United States, however, as virus-wary Americans who do not have valid passports opt for domestic travel instead of going overseas.

Adam Sacks, the president of Tourism Economics, said that Americans were projected to spend $139 billion abroad this year. That money, he said, could be pumped back into the American economy and help offset financial losses from international travelers who spent $154 billion in the United States last year but are not expected to visit during the pandemic.

Mr. Risch said about half of the employees who process passports had returned to consular offices this week, and an additional 150 workers from other parts of the State Department were being pulled in to help. They will all be given personal protective equipment — like face masks and gloves — and will keep safe distances from one another.

Mr. Risch said passport applications would be considered on a “first in, first out” basis that would prioritize people who have been waiting since February.

In the past, consular officers have taken pains to try to sort out priority cases among applicants. That may still be quietly happening, at least to some extent.

“I am positive that they are on it to the extent that it is possible to be on it,” said Michele Thoren Bond, who was an assistant secretary for consular affairs during the Obama administration.

She said consular officers were well aware that Americans who are stuck have no other way to get passports.

Ms. Hansen, who has lived in Switzerland for the last 20 years, said American diplomats there appeared to share her frustration in being unable to renew her passport after she first tried to schedule an appointment to do so in February.

“I almost feel stateless,” she said in an interview on Friday. “I’m not in my own country and I don’t have my passport.”

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Tacey Rychter from New York.

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