Politics & Policy

Passport Incompetence to the Slaughter

Tripping up the government.

In the wake of the Bush administration’s failure to prepare for an increase in passport applications that has now overloaded the system, a provision in the Homeland Security appropriations bill would cut off the funding for a plan that would lead to even bigger increases.

#ad#That plan would require passports for all land and sea travel between the United States and Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean. Under the provision in the Homeland Security bill currently before the House, the money would be withheld until the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department — the bureaucracies responsible for the bungling — have explored alternatives such as “secure” drivers’ licenses or passport cards.

Last Friday, after members of Congress reported that their offices were overwhelmed with complaints about passport delays, DHS and State announced they were postponing implementation of a new requirement that all air travelers between the countries have passports. The requirement was changed for the summer so that now, in order to fly to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean, travelers must present proof that they’ve applied for a passport, plus an original copy of their birth certificate.

The requirement is part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which the administration developed in 2005 after Congress mandated tougher documentation for travelers between the United States and other countries in the region. The plan called for air travelers to have passports by June of this year, with a January 2008 implementation date for land and sea crossings.

DHS and State haven’t done so well with the first part of the plan. Passports, which usually take between 8 and 10 weeks to process, are now routinely taking 13-15, according to members of Congress whose offices have been deluged with complaints from summer travelers. The departments failed to prepare adequately for an estimated six million new passport applications from air travelers, and the system was overwhelmed.

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Astonishingly, despite this failure, DHS and State insist that they will be ready for an estimated 27 million new passport applications from land and sea travelers by January 1.

Denial this profound often requires an intervention, and that’s what Rep. Louise Slaughter (D, N.Y.) is staging by including a measure in the current Homeland Security appropriations bill that would sequester $100 million of the $250 million required for full implementation of WHTI. Slaughter and other border-state lawmakers argue that DHS shouldn’t get the money until it has completed a program to determine whether drivers’ licenses can be enhanced to serve as a secure form of ID. The State Department has also announced the creation of a passport card, which would be cheaper and less arduous to obtain than a traditional passport. Slaughter’s provision would suspend the land implementation of WHTI until the new cards are tested and ready.

Close watchers of the immigration debate will see a similarity and a sad irony at work in the passport imbroglio. The similarity is that the administration, through apathy or incompetence, bungled the first phase of WHTI, yet now expects us to trust it to effectively implement a much vaster and more difficult phase of the project. Substitute “border enforcement” for “WHTI” and the message of Slaughter’s provision becomes instantly recognizable: We just don’t trust you to do this.

The sad irony, of course, is that American citizens are being subjected to delays, bureaucratic hassles and in some cases cancelled or postponed travel plans over document issues at the hands of an administration that is simultaneously offering amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

Take, for instance, Esther Rae, who is leaving with her family today for a trip to Ireland to celebrate her 50th-wedding anniversary. She almost didn’t make it. Esther says she applied for a passport on March 15th — three months in advance. She only got her passport late last week, and only after she called Congressman Tom Reynolds’s office to try to get some answers.

“I called the phone number they give you, a number of times,” Rae says, “ and at first they say if you’re not leaving in two weeks, hang up. So I did, and called again two weeks later, and got a message saying I’d be ten minutes holding, then five, then three, and then… it disconnected. This happened twice. When I finally got through they said they had others who were leaving before I did and that they would get to it next week.”

She says she got an e-mail saying her passport was in the mail the day after she called Reynolds’ office. “I’m sure it’s here because of that,” she says.

Newspapers around the country are filling up with such stories, and members of Congress are saying that passport complaints are starting to rival another top source of constituent concern: the immigration bill. Maybe someone should explain to them how the two are related.

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