Coleman calls for quick action to end massive backlog in issuing passports
A massive backlog in issuing passports demands quick action from the U.S. State Department, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman urged Thursday. Coleman, R-Minn., met with Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty to urge swift action, in l...
A massive backlog in issuing passports demands quick action from the U.S. State Department, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman urged Thursday.
Coleman, R-Minn., met with Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty to urge swift action, in light of new passport requirements that started in January which require U.S. citizens to produce passports when returning by plane from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
"The passport situation at the State Department right now is a mess," Coleman said Thursday in a statement. "My staff and I have heard from hundreds of constituents who are facing the potential loss of significant money and cherished family time through no fault of their own. I find it unacceptable that these families are correctly following the timeline for passport applications and still not receiving them in time."
The Pioneer reported earlier this week on a Bemidji teen who missed a vacation flight to Mexico this month -- after having applied for a passport in mid-January. Matt Schnell followed procedures, filing for his passport at the Beltrami County License Center.
But what is usually a six-week wait stretched longer once the documents left Bemidji for processing at the State Department's Passport Services office. Schnell even paid an extra $100 to "expedite" his passport once he found out it was caught in the backlog.
The passport arrived by FedEx on Tuesday, three days after his flight with neighbors he was supposed to travel with left for Mexico.
"Not much you can do now," he told the Pioneer. "I wouldn't say I'm disillusioned. I'm a little mad about it."
"I have directed my staff to concentrate heavily on this issue until it is resolved," Coleman said, adding that he recently hired an additional staff member to work exclusively on Minnesota passport cases.
Harty on Thursday told Coleman that the State Department is taking additional measures to respond to passport applicant needs, including new call centers, additional staff and mandatory overtime. Coleman said he asked for the meeting in response to more than 300 requests his office has received related to the delay in the past few weeks -- which is threatening family vacations and potential losses of thousands of dollars for families that have booked travel.
"While I was glad to learn about additional State Department resources being devoted to resolving this situation, there is obviously much more that must be done," the Minnesota Republican said.
The backlog is primarily a result of passport applications that have increased by over 40 percent from the same time period last year, due to the new passport requirement for air travel between the U.S. and Mexico, Canada and other Western Hemisphere nations.
"This situation also illustrates how disruptive the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative's land border implementation could be if the administration seriously intends to use a January 2008 deadline to require a passport or other document to drive to Canada," Coleman said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "testified last month before the Homeland Security Committee that this year's roll-out of the air rule had been 'flawless.' Obviously this was not the case, and I intend to call him on that," Coleman added.
The Improving America's Security Act of 2007, approved earlier this week by the Senate, included Coleman's amendment to require the Department of Homeland Security to institute a pilot program to determine if enhanced driver's licenses are suitable documentation for travel between the United States and Canada as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
"Passage of this bill is a step in the right direction as driver's licenses are becoming more secure and should be explored as a potential form of documentation for travel to and from Canada," said Coleman. "For the last year, I have been pushing for a pilot program that would move this concept forward. Not only does my amendment ensure that a pilot takes place, but it also requires an analysis of the next steps involved in expanding this possible solution to additional states."
The bill, which passed 60-38, now heads to a Senate-House conference committee.
Meanwhile, Coleman urges Minnesotans who are experiencing delays in their passport applications to check on their status by calling the National Passport Center toll-free at 1-877-487-2778 or on the Web at www.travel.state.gov . Also, Coleman has placed an advisory on his Web site, www.coleman.senate.gov , with contact numbers and background information on the backlog.
"Going forward," Coleman said, "I would encourage anyone in need of a passport within six months to apply now, just to be on the safe side."