I’m not good at crystal ball gazing but it seems to me that although the State Department managed to get its act together enough to play passport issuance catch-up over the past six months to the point where the wait-time is reportedly four to six weeks for regular processing and no more than three weeks for expedited processing, whether this will last is something else again. Why it took Congressional pressure and media criticism to force State to clean up the mess last summer is beyond me – but nevertheless, the outside pressure is clearly what made the difference.
State’s new Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, Moira Hardy, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and everyone else involved should thank their lucky stars this holiday season that Congress put its foot down and told the administration and its recalcitrant Department of Homeland Security to postpone the full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Initiative (WHTI) until June 1, 2009 or later - like it or not. At least someone has some common sense.
When the WHTI is fully implemented everyone who crosses the US borders by land or sea as well as air will be required to have a valid passport or a “smart card.” This could quadruple the number of American passport holders and yet again inundate the passport agencies unless the State Department is prepared to ramp up its passport issuing office capacity substantially yet again between now and then.
Why DHS’ continued urging that this final piece of the law be implemented sooner rather than later is beyond me. Exactly how many of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, came into the country sans passport and across a land or sea border from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean? Not one. If I remember correctly they entered on questionable student visas issued by private American flight schools where they learned to take-off but not land. Who exactly monitored that rather bizarre behavior – where was the FBI when we needed them? I’m also not convinced that a piece of paper makes a difference in the overall scheme of things. Then again, it’s not exactly as if we don’t have our home-grown terrorists either – think Oklahoma City bombing. What does seem to make a difference, however, is strong intelligence work and alert border officials. That’s where I’d put my money if I lived in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW.
I suppose, however, if a would-be terrorist happened to cross the US border by foot sans passport, it would make DHS look bad. Frankly, I think this passport-by-land requirement is foremost nonsense and essentially a bureaucratic CYA game – but that comes from my cynical nature having worked for the U.S. government for 27 plus years and having experienced more than my share of terrorist alerts, scares and disasters overseas.
The passport issuance postponement requirement was a part of the omnibus appropriations bill that emerged from Congress in December. I understand that the president, who signed the bill December 26, indicated he would not oppose the postponement’s inclusion. People should thank Representative Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) for sponsoring the legislation requiring the delay.
Ghee thanks, Michael, that's really helpful
DHS is not the part of the bureaucracy that is charged with issuing passports so why should it care whether or not the State Department can handle the projected increased load. At the same time DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff declared his objections to the passport requirement delay, he also said that beginning January 31, 2008, DHS “plans to implement an interim policy of not accepting oral declarations of citizenship as the sole means of entering the country by land or sea. He went on to say that U.S. and Canadian citizens 19 years and older will instead need to present a passport, or, alternatively, a government-issued photo ID plus proof of citizenship, such as a driver’s license and birth or naturalization certificate. . .” Children ages 18 and under will only be required to present proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate. “Passports and trusted traveler program cards – NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST – will continue to be accepted for cross-border travel.” As far as I know, this doesn’t change much, if anything, of what is already being required or that this interim requirement is postponed. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
This 18 month passport-free-travel extension – which prohibits implementation before June 1, 2009 according to Eleanor Stables at CQ Today – Homeland Security on December 18, 2007 should help State management – for the first time in years under a competent leader – get its act together enough to ramp up for the expected deluge when the more stringent requirement does come into force. Since passport processing pays for itself, it’s not exactly as if State should have a funding problem - but meeting a surge of demand does require planning ahead.
Bureaucratic glitch potential on the horizon
In the meantime, there are a couple of potential bureaucratic glitches in the passport issuance process that could cloud the horizon this coming year. (Eric thanks for the tip.) First, in good Republican contract-everything-out mode, almost all of the passport issuance process has been contracted out to the private sector. Stanley Inc., the company which does almost everything except for opening the initial application envelope, extracting the fees and registering checks (that’s done by Citibank under a US Treasury contract) and adjudicating the actual applications (done by State Department Consular Officers), is being re-bid. If the contract goes to a new company expect delays and mistakes as a part of the learning process as happened last year when Citibank took over the financial portion of the process from a competitor that had held that contract for years.
The second possible glitch is that State is opening yet another new passport printing facility sometime this spring also to be run by Stanley, Inc. This time in Tucson, Arizona. Don’t ask why – makes no sense to me. This new facility – along with the one which opened in Hope Springs, Arkansas last year – fragments the issuance process even further. One has to wonder why the Department couldn’t have just updated the equipment at the already existing passport offices especially those in Charleston and New Hampshire where most mail-in requests are handled. From my perspective, these new printing facilities smell of political pay-offs but to whom is beyond me. They make no sense administratively even in this era of rapid technological interchange of data. As people saw last year, it took time for the plant in Hope Springs to get up to speed - so expect problems from Tucson as well.
Why someone from New Mexico, for instance, has to mail a renewal application to Los Angeles where their check is extracted and the application logged in by Citibank, then wait for the application and supporting documents to be mailed to either New Hampshire, if they’re lucky, or Charleston, if they’re not, for processing and adjudication, then if approved, that data transmitted to Tucson or Hope Springs for printing of the actual new passport. Meanwhile, the supporting documents are returned to the applicant by mail from New Hampshire or Charleston and the new passport is mailed to the applicant from Hope Springs or Tucson. In my view, something is wrong with this picture. It seems as if it would be both more costly and a waste of time.
Meanwhile, stay tuned and keep us informed. Your experiences are crucial to assisting others as we all learned last year. We will continue to follow and post on the passport issuing issue as changes occur. And, if need be, don’t forget to check reader comments on this and previous posts and our passport tips page (which includes basic information for US passport seekers on a variety of topics) for additional information.