You can imagine how these people feel. Perhaps youíre even one of them. What would your reaction be if you were planning a vacation trip overseas, or were invited to a wedding or similar event in a foreign country, and found out you canít go because your application for a passport was buried in an avalanche of other applications?
The Bush administration announced Wednesday it will delay for at least six months a rule that Americans present passports when entering the U.S. at a land or sea border crossing. The requirement had been scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2008. The announcement marks the second time in a month that officials have scaled back security plans in response to complaints.
Beginning in January, land and sea travelers returning from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda will be allowed to present a birth certificate and driverís license in lieu of a passport. Also starting next year, travelers will no longer be able to make a verbal declaration of U.S citizenship to re-enter the country. At the southern border, Americans generally must present a driverís license.
The modification is expected to last at least until the summer of 2008, when officials hope to require passports or similar documentation at all land and sea crossings.
Anger over the passport backlog spread to all sections of the country in recent months as travelers faced a logistical nightmare of trying to get passports in time for travel. The Associated Press reported that the waiting time for passports soared from around six weeks to more than three months, delaying or ruining the travel plans of thousands of Americans.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, offered an array of explanations, even while she was accepting blame for the delay. Part of the problem, she said, was that in 2005 Hurricane Katrina reduced the capabilities of the agencyís New Orleans passport office. She also said the agency had not expected so many Americans to actually obey the new law.
In addition, many people are applying for passports with no specific travel plans in mind, but they figured they are going to need one eventually.
Complaints from the public and from Congress about the passport delays forced the Bush administration on June 8 to suspend the air travel passport requirement until September. Those flying back from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda may now do so until September with an identification card like a driverís license and a printout from a State Department Web site showing they have applied and are still waiting for a U.S. passport.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans who thought they would never need a passport are obviously deciding that has changed, and I couldnít be happier that I already have mine. That came a couple of years ago before a Thanksgiving week trip to London, which I can recommend unless you have an aversion to cold weather. Of course, they donít actually observe Thanksgiving in London, but we did meet up with some fellow Yanks and found a Holiday Inn restaurant with enough of a U.S. clientele that it could justify serving a turkey and dressing buffet. It was almost like the real thing.
But the passport anxiety is where this story is leading. We thought we had all the paperwork sent off in plenty of time. There was a matter of obtaining certified copies of my wifeís birth certificate from Pecos County, which wasnít difficult. I was born in North Carolina, but I felt fortunate in that my mother had given me the actual certificate my proud parents were given when Mom left the hospital with me. So I filled out the forms, and waited for a passport.
Several weeks had passed before a letter arrived from the passport office. My birth certificate was inadequate because it wasnít stamped and embossed. They needed a certified copy; not the real McCoy. Time was passing, and panic seemed appropriate.
Fortunately, the county records clerk offered a rush service for a higher fee, and I was able to get a birth certificate copy ó certified and all ó in my hands in plenty of time to get the passport so I could make the trip.
But until the passport did arrive at the house, my anxiety had continued to build.
It was a good thing, too, because by then, I really needed a vacation.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.