Coronavirus

Americans Can't Travel Because State Department Employees Won't Work

Massive passport-processing delays, due to COVID restrictions and staffing shortages, are ruining summer travel plans and prompting fantastical workarounds.

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Next week, my dual-citizen wife will take a previously unplanned five-hour flight from New York to a city out west, rent an expensive car (all car rentals are expensive nowadays), drive a couple of hours, spend the night at a hotel, then go to a first-thing-in-the-morning appointment at a State Department agency to receive her "expedited" U.S. passport renewal that she originally applied for more than three months ago.

This thousand-dollar detour, made necessary by our pending trip to see the in-laws in France (COVID having scrambled the ability for dual nationals to traverse freely between countries on just one of the two passports), has been playing out all over the country, as Americans with immovable travel dates scramble to deal with consular processing that has slowed to a crawl.

"Passport backlog surges to nearly 2.2M as applicants wait up to 24 weeks," ran the headline this week at Fox News. "Those without a valid passport will likely need to delay any summer trips abroad." A cruel fate for those who've been penned up at home for 16 months.

More infuriating still is that the paperwork logjam appears largely man-made, the result of government passport services that are still not fully reopened.

"It is clear that the 26 regional passport agencies and centers are not operating at full capacity to meet constituent needs," Sen. James Lankford (R–Okla.) wrote in a scathing July 19 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. "I have heard from an unusually large number of constituents whose vacations, work trips, and honeymoons were cancelled due to these delays and did not receive adequate assistance from the Department of State, which is totally unacceptable."

In a July 14 press briefing on the issue, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt insisted that, "We've been doing and continue to do everything we can to serve the American public while prioritizing the health and safety of our staff and of our customers," and then proceeded to detail all the ways in which that statement is not true.

"As of July 12th, we had passport agencies where…all of the staff was returning…in 17 cities," Arndt reported. "We have an additional five that we are anticipating approval to move to be completely open with all staff back in the office."

Arndt's explanation was filled with such present-participle verb tenses. "We are surging staff, both adjudicators and contractors, back into the office at agencies across the country as COVID restrictions ease….This summer we're going to have over 150 staff returning to 21 agencies across the country, and that will increase our capacity to process applications more quickly. We are looking at surging back to pre-pandemic staffing levels," etc.

Do you know who is back in the office, unlike State Dept. employees who've had access to COVID vaccines longer than most of the rest of us? Scores of millions of Americans, including many who would like to visit their relatives for the first time in a year and a half. Compounding that failure to put asses back in office chairs is the fact that, as Arndt says, "passport specialists need to be physically present in the office to process the passports. They are not processing remotely or from home."

Field offices for members of Congress from both parties are overwhelmed with desperate constituent requests for help. "The State Department must get their employees back to work to handle the backlog," Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R–Staten Island) said in a statement July 10. "That is the message my colleagues and I keep reinforcing." Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) is calling for emergency personnel.

Normally, passport issuances and renewals take four to six weeks. In my wife's case, it took more than a month after sending in her application for Passport Services to even cash her $140 check. Those, like her, who are panicky about receiving legal documentation in time for an already paid-for flight, are invited to shell out an additional $60 to allegedly speed things through. When that fails, and there are only 10 business days left before your departure date, you can jump on the State Department website (preferably after midnight) and mash the refresh button, or brave the multi-hour hold music on the phone, until you are granted an appointment in whatever far-flung field office has available space within the last, nail-biting 72 hours before takeoff.

Unsurprisingly, there have proliferated several Facebook and Reddit groups dedicated toward hacking the phone tree or facilitating third-party workarounds (such as, people reserve appointments, then transfer them…though the State Department is naturally trying to crack down on that practice). Basically, in addition to the thousand-dollar price tag and multi-day time-suck, you can count on at least a dozen hours of research/hold time wasted, plus the attendant anxiety that comes with it all. And that's for the people lucky enough to not have to cancel their summer vacations.

One of the key chokepoints in the process is the initial "lockbox" phase, when an application is received at a secure location, assigned a tracking number, then forwarded to the main processing office. This process, which is overseen by the Treasury Department and outsourced to Citibank, usually takes 24 hours. But according to Sen. Lankford, "In a June 30 memo to Congressional staff, the [Treasury] Department stated, 'Treasury-operated Citibank lockboxes…have been experiencing operational issues.…Service partner operational delays are currently up to six weeks after the passport was mailed.'"

An anonymous Citibank spokesperson told Fox News that the delays were attributable to COVID precautions and staffing shortages.

Added Lankford: "The delay from one day to six weeks in the lockbox phase of the process is entirely unacceptable….If Citibank and other partners are not fulfilling their obligations to the taxpayers in a satisfactory manner, I would support a search for alternative contractors for this phase of the process who can get the job done. Additionally, if the cause of these 'operational issues' is outdated social distancing requirements or other COVID-related restrictions that are no longer required by local mandates or CDC guidance, the policy for these personnel must be updated to ensure maximum productivity."

Asked about the contracting problem, Arndt responded with a lot of present-participle.

"In addition to surging our staff for both contract and government, we are expanding our overtime work at all locations and we are continuing to increase the number of appointments available at all of our public passport agencies and centers," she said. "And then we are also working with our partners to expand staffing capacity at the front end for processing at our lockbox facilities." Swell.

So cross your fingers that the two million U.S. citizens waiting for travel documents can somehow wheedle them into existence before they leave the country. And if you or your family members have passports that are within one year of expiring, better start hurrying now. Because the government certainly isn't.

"People who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall," Arndt said. "U.S. citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans."

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  1. Three months was about how long the expedited process took five years ago. Ymmv.
    This is the government you wanted Matt.

  2. Gov employees using an excuse not to work? Say it ain’t so.!

    1. Here in Nazi-Land your pay is guaranteed without the ?racist? requirement to *earn* it.

      Not-Surprisingly no-one seems to want to *earn* their pay anymore and *nothing* is getting done.

      Yet thousands of lefty-indoctrinated people will remain “faithfully” and completely ignorant of such an obvious reality and pretend that MORE [WE] mob criminal gangs using Gov-Guns to steal anything in sight will magically actual “produce” what they really needed or wanted instead of the obvious end-result of a poverty-stricken criminal “gangster” ruled unproductive environment it already is.

  3. As a Koch / Reason libertarian, the only freedom of movement I care about involves people from outside the US crossing our border so they can live here instead. For those who are already US residents, however, restrictions on movement are completely acceptable.

    #LibertariansForLockdowns

    1. You have been doing this idiotic shtick for years and years. We get it: you hate brown people. Now fuck off.

      1. But they’s a better parody than you

      2. Actually, I think he hates Koch more.

      3. He would only hate them if it would increase the net worth of the Koch family and other billionaires.

      4. Hey Joey,maybe open borders just hates ILLEGALS bombarding our shorez,sucking the lifeblood out of cities to be kept anonomous!!

    2. Stay home and stop the spread!

      1. and get nothing done. That’s the gummit way.

    3. Passports? What passports?
      We don’t need no stinking passports!

      1. The new crop of Reason subscribers wading across the Rio Grande don’t need passports, so who cares that no passports are being issued?

    4. O-B-L, it’s getting tired. time for a new schtick. plenty of fresh meat out there…please find it

      1. Never.

        Keep it up OBL. Your a gazillion times better than the articles.

    5. One of these days I’m going to write a web page scraper to post your content onto Gab.

  4. >>This thousand-dollar detour, made necessary by our pending trip to see the in-laws in France

    made necessary by the unnecessary?

    1. White privileging.

      1. Comment faites vous ‘zoom’ en Francais?

          1. The French would do that, wouldn’t they?

  5. This is the level of government employee responsibility that the American people voted for. (according to a bunch of anonymous sources who believe in ballot harvesting and box stuffing)

  6. https://twitter.com/Katherine_VA/status/1417953453960273929

    Katherine Schoonover
    @Katherine_VA
    If the Democrats wanted people to think that they were involved in the unleashing of covid on the world then this was the way to do it.

    Chuck Callesto
    @ChuckCallesto
    BREAKING REPORT: House Democrats Block Bill to Declassify
    Intel on ORGINS OF COVID-19 Virus…

    1. Fauci must be held accountable for his crimes.

    2. This week Fauci admitted there WERE experiments funded in Wuhan, he just claims it’s not THIS PARTICULAR virus.
      ———–
      2016 Gain-of-function research definition:

      Experimentation that that aims or is expected to increase the transmissibility or virulence of pathogens, or improve understanding of their interaction with humans, and potential to cause pandemics.
      ——-
      Fauci is now trying to claim that a bunch of “experts” have decided that this isn’t the REAL definition, so he totally was telling the truth. It’s all bullshit.

      1. well then we can move along then, fauci says it wasn’t THIS virus. for those who have not already, do a study on EXACTLY what gain of function is. Fauci and his pals and the CCP are the ones balls deep in that field. they can’t do the research in this country so they off-shore it. creeps.

    3. so what? The origins of this virus are readily availble on the web… quite a few have taken the time to compare testimnies, records, petant applicatins… the more we learn the stinkier it gets.

      There are people that will be soon needing some shieny birght new orangw onesies. But probably won’t get them…..

  7. Like the Berlin Wall. Years ago it took my wife 2 years to get a passport. She is naturalized citizen and came here as a child. Her parents were deceased and paperwork lost. She went to appointment after appointment with INS and filled out stacks of forms. Nothing.

    Finally we called our congressman’s office and found a sympathetic staffer. Once we sent him the documents he physically went to where they keep the certificate and sent it to us.

    Anyway this is typical government crap. Every business operation up and running has gone to as much remote work as possible. They have found ways to deal with it.

  8. This also explains why I have hide nor hair about my step-daughters visa application to come to the US. The last I heard anything on it was well over a year ago.

  9. Heard, that is.

  10. That’s some great dem bureaucratic efficiency right there.

    1. If you think the problem is bad just wait until you see the solution.

  11. Reason got their man in office, but while because their boy and his administration are incompetent. Its beautiful man.

  12. I needed an Apostille from DOS last fall. I paid for expedited processing. It should have taken 4 weeks in that case. It ended up being 12 weeks and since the document it was certifying wouldn’t be accepted by the Spanish government after 90 days, I was in serious trouble. Luckily, they were understanding and still accepted it after the deadline.

  13. We used to say “ those who can work, those who can’t teach”. Now those who can’t are government management. Never bitch at the guy or gal who thought it was an easy trip to a guaranteed unfunded pension. They are maybe not incompetent, but just ignorant.

  14. Good luck to your wife and safe travels abroad.

    I remember one year, about a decade ago or so, I had a soon-to-expire passport, and also a business trip planned to Mexico. Previously, you did not need a passport to travel to Mexico or Canada, but recently, either Congress had passed a law or the State Department reversed a policy (I forget which) to change that. The change was set to take effect on New Year’s Day, the day before my flight.

    There was much uproar about it, but nothing I could do except get a new passport as quickly as possible.

    I paid an ungodly amount, something like $400, to not only cover the normal fees and the expediting , but to overnight FedEx it to Boston to some agency to have it hand delivered to a live person at the State Department office there. The agency then overnighted it back to me. The entire process only took about a week or so.

    Two days before my trip, they changed the rules again, and you were allowed to travel to Mexico and back without passports again.

    1. Reminds me of the REAL ID requirements that have been kicked down the road for 2 decades.

  15. …and then in France, you’ll have to face new laws preventing you from accessing any public space/ bar/restaurant/theater/train… without showing first your ID and then your “pass sanitaire” (a QR code proving you’re either vaccinated or you had a negative pcr test less than 2 days before). A libertarian dream… Good luck with that.

  16. Back in November, my nephew suffered a detached retina. Within 3 weeks he received a notice from the DOT that his CDL was suspended until his eyesight was fixed. He passed the eye test in February and submitted the paperwork to get his CDL re-instated. He was told it would be 6 to 8 weeks for processing so he checked back after a month only to be told that his paperwork wasn’t complete – and they didn’t bother telling him his paperwork was incomplete. So he asked what other paperwork he needed to submit, they couldn’t tell him. His file was marked “Incomplete Paperwork” but it didn’t note what paperwork was missing. After going through the list of what he needed to submit, turns out the paperwork was complete, they did have everything they needed. Except now the processing time was up to 3 months. That was 4 months ago, they still can’t tell him how long it will take. Fortunately, he was able to get a provisional license from the state (only took a week) that allows him to drive intrastate routes and his employer put him on in-state-only routes so he’s back to work, but in just about any other line of work than the government this sort of shit would be totally unacceptable.

    1. I mean hey, it’s not like there’s a driver shortage right now or anything…

  17. To summarize: The US government, along with the rest of the industrialized world, largely shut down non-essential services along with a huge portion of the economy. Now, [the author] is surprised that there are bumps in the road to get things back up to anything resembling normalcy.

    Unless they have set their hair on fire, like banning bump stocks after a shooting or fear mongering that pervy dudes in dresses will start going into girls locker rooms, the US Federal Government moves at a glacial pace during even the best of times.

    The Feds are slow when restarting after a disaster of their own making? Yes. Very much like water is wet and fire is hot, the government is slow and incompetent. Why is this even a story?

    1. Because Welch is incapable of original thought = Why is this even a story?

      Welch regurgitates Vox agitprop, just like the flaxen-haired harpy.

    2. “Why is this even a story?”

      The real question is: Why is it only a story now?

      Oh, because it actually hit home.

      Fuck you Welchie, you spoiled self absorbed little shit. Over the last year many people have lost their jobs, or their businesses, kids have lost a year of school, and many others have had tehir lives turned upside down because of this government imposed disaster.

      But not the laptop and loafers class. You’ve done fine. Right up until now that is. Only now that it is costing you some time and some money (and apparently other than that you are still getting what you want) do you whinge.

      It’s a tad unbecoming.

      1. Have you not been reading this website recently? Welch’s beat for the past year and a half has almost exclusively been shitting on big cities and their school districts for being authoritarian dick-bags in the pocket of the teachers’ unions. Like, complaining about left-wing COVID idiocy is pretty much the only thing he’s written about in months. Barely a week goes by without him getting into an amazing, expletive-filled rant on the Fifth Column podcast about how we need to open the fuck up already.

        1. I do recall some article about schools needing to re-open. But I do not do the podcasts. While your impression of him may be better I still find it all weak tea and too little too late.

  18. Alas. A nonpartisan reason to vote OUT the Congressional Democrats in November 2020 and Biden in 2024.

  19. Can you imagine if these same muttonheads were in charge of your healthcare or mental healthcare? While veterans across America are committing suicide in record numbers, our heroes at the VA are looking tanned, healthy, and well-rested.
    What is the point of one on one counseling in a mask? They shut down all resident programs and groups. Waiting lists at the VA have killed more veterans than the Iraqis and the Afghans combined.

  20. Wife & son applied for Passports in Jan 2020. They received them in March of 2020 but the State Dept never returned their original paperwork & has no clue what happened to it over a year later. Nothing like having your personal paperwork lost out there somewhere where it ripe for identity theft courtesy of the State Department’s incompetence.

  21. The CV19 pandemic has illustrated well that govt jobs are among the easiest and most secure a person can get. No govt worker where I live missed a paycheck BUT got lots of free time. Hard to sell the time worn story that “Govt jobs don’t pay as well as those in the private sector” – that’s utter nonsense.

  22. Raises, raises all around!

  23. She waited until under four months ago to renew a passport that is expiring soon? That’s just bad decision-making, even with normal turnaround times. It’s a federal government bureaucracy. I’m They make mistakes. Lots of them. They lose paperwork, mis-type system inputs, etc. My wife’s passport was set to expire in December. She applied for the renewal six months ago. And she has it….

  24. Gummit chair-holder-downers decide they can’t come in to work, they’d rather hold down chairs athome and still collect their paycheck. Any other country where this happens would be called socialist. Or communist.
    The Planned-demonic is over.. get over it already. If they don’t want to get back to work hire dweebs who do.
    Any for-profit corporation would have alraedy figured out how to make it happen anyway. The lockbox nonsense is beyoind insane. If Citi won’t move their thick ends, let the contract out to another who will.. And WHY are ALL passport apps sent to ONE location? Why not lockboxes in a few select places around the country? They’ve set up this good ol boy system, designed to grind slowly, then a manufactured “crisis” dumps on us and we’re supposed to “understand”? WHY not simply let anyone with an expired passport with a photo tht still looks like that guy travel anyway? It still shows the guy who’se holding it, al the information has not changed. Maybe put on ten pounds sitting about home eathing for a year…

    these troiugh-feeders are NOT ‘pubic servants”. They are servided by the public instead.. we continue to pay their exhorbitant salaries despite their staying home (?) and not working.

    1. “Plandemic” ++

  25. We (family of 4) had a trip planned in April. In February we noticed our children’s passports and, one of our passports (3 in total), had recently expired. The system said to call within 2 weeks of your trip and if you were lucky you might get one of the very few available emergency appts. Well, we called day and night for those 2 weeks but then had to cancel the entire trip and reschedule it for June. We were told that they had very limited appts because hardly anyone was working. In early March all three of us applied through the expedited system and received our renewed passports within around 4-6 weeks time (which was the fastest service we’ve ever received!). I guess we just barely missed the onslaught of people who were applying.

  26. Welcome to the world of working with government agencies. 23 straight calls to the IRS “We are sorry, due to extreme call volume, we are unable to take your call at this time. Please call back later or on the next business day.” When getting through, it is only “Your call will be answered in 30 to 45 minutes.”

    Then you finally get an IRS employee, the kids crying and dogs barking, TV on. That is when you discover that forms mailed in March (return receipt received) has not yet been posted to the IRS system because “it apparently is still on a desk unopened. Some departments are not fully staffed in the office.” In the meantime, my client is getting computer generated letters for non-compliance.

    Every person I have dealt with wants to be back in the office full time but the Executive Department rules are preventing it.

    Trust me, all tax accountants and attorneys know the struggles in dealing with government employees that are not allowed to do their jobs. (Don’t blame the workers, blame the Washington bureaucrats).

    Feeling empathy for anyone dealing with the government. Done venting.

    1. ” 23 straight calls to the IRS “We are sorry, due to extreme call volume, we are unable to take your call at this time. Please call back later or on the next business day.”

      I recently went through this. Filed taxes online last year in July, mailed check for amount due the next day. Come October I start getting mailings saying I had balance due. Wonder if I forgot to mail check, go to bank website, find the cancelled check that says “DEPOSIT US TREASURY” on back.

      You literally have a five minute window from when they turn the phones on in the morning. Do not try calling earlier. If you do not get through the phone tree to a “please hold for the next available agent” within the first five minutes you might as well forget the rest of the day and plan to try again tomorrow. Sure, you can call back again, and may still get to the “please hold…” but nobody will answer and eventually you will get disconnected.

      Took me three letters and about 30 days of calling to finally get a person. She was very nice and helpful, tracked down the money, and told me they would have it fixed within 60 days, but until then the threatening letters would continue. But she also told me that, since the amount wasn’t huge (about $8k) all the threats of liens, etc. were empty and they’d never actually file anything.

      1. And the final letter from them telling me it had all been cleared up did not arrive until May of this year.

  27. Poor, poor Park Slope Welchie Boy. He and the French woman he’s allegedly married to couldn’t dine out at their favorite restaurants for like a year due to big government liberal lockdowns. He and the French woman he’s allegedly married to can’t get their kids in school because of recalcitrant big government liberal teachers unions. And now, he and the French woman he’s allegedly married to can’t take their annual vacation to France because of big government liberal staffing issues and bureaucracy.

    Bent a big government liberal can be really hard sometimes, can’t it? Enjoy the next three and a half years of the government you wanted!

    “I’m a liberal.”
    -Park Slope Welchie Boy

  28. Good post. Thanks for sharing with us.

  29. They can’t even handle passports and fools want to give them control of the healthcare system. Morons!

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