Balkinization  

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Travelers Beware: Or Be Caught in a Bureaucratic Nightmare

Brian Tamanaha

If you plan to travel abroad any time in the next six months, read this post.

On April 4th, my wife and I went to the post office with all the documents required to renew our seven-year-old son’s passport. After waiting only an hour and a half in line, the courteous clerk efficiently handled the paperwork and assured us that we would receive the passport by mail within eight weeks.

That was almost three months ago. My wife is taking the kids to visit her family abroad. The departure date is this Sunday, July 1. We have paid for non-refundable tickets in the amount of $2,400. Everyone is excited, especially her parents, who see their grandchildren only once a year.

The only problem is that the passport has not arrived.

About two weeks ago we became a bit concerned, and began calling the toll free number for the passport agency. Many times when you call the message will tell you that they are too busy to receive your call, and it hangs up. We went on the passport internet site and registered our request, receiving an assurance that we would get an update within days (still waiting for that).

Finally, after calling many times (and after being on hold for many minutes), last Tuesday we reached a live person. What a relief! She cheerily told us that she would indicate on our file that the passport must be expedited, and she assured us we would receive the passport by express mail within three days. Great! That wasn’t so bad after all.

It didn’t come.

Last Friday night, now truly concerned, we reached another live person. She told us that there was no indication in the file that anything had been done on the passport, and she said that we should call again on Monday. I asked her if we could go into the passport office (in Manhattan) to get the passport in person. She said that they would only see us within three days of the scheduled departure date, so we had to wait until then to try that approach.

Monday arrived and, you guessed it, no passport. We reached a live person again (after many calls and much waiting). The apologetic fellow told us that nothing had been done on the passport. After almost three months and several calls and assurances, it sits without movement in Stage One (“received but not processed at all”). My guess is that it takes about five minutes at most to verify and input the information necessary to renew a passport, so they must be busy.

It is possible to get a passport in person if you are near an office. But you are allowed entry into the passport office only if you have an appointment. Unfortunately, as we learned today, the soonest available appointment is several days after the scheduled departure date. Had the first person we talked to advised us to try and get an appointment immediately, we might have had a chance. Now it is too late. Despite being told that we must wait until three days before departure, as it turns out there is no special allowance for people within three days of departure. Trip in a couple of days, applied three months ago, but no appointment, so too bad.

I asked the nice fellow on the line whether it would help if we showed up at the office with kids in tow and plane tickets in hand, our desperation showing on our faces; he said that they “almost certainly” would not let us in. We have decided to try anyway. He sounded sympathetic, but assured me that there was nothing he could do. When I asked him to be honest about our prospects, he said it “looks rough” (meaning: virtually no chance in hell you will get a passport before your scheduled departure).

There was little point in being angry, so I thanked him for his candor, and that was it.

It’s depressing to have done everything right in ample time, and yet be in this position. Fortunately, I am comforted by knowing that my country loves me, and is doing everything it can for me.

Meanwhile, we have to tell the grandparents that they won’t see their grandchildren next week (and probably not this summer) because it takes more than three months to get a passport renewed in the U.S. I prefer not to think about the money we have lost on the tickets through no fault of our own. Just imagine how bad things must be for people who live in a place less efficient than our own great country.

Anyone out there who is scheduled to travel and needs a new passport, take my word for it: Don’t believe what you are told. It is a mess, and they offer misleading information and conflicting advice.

Submit your application at least six months in advance (and even then cross your fingers), or get an appointment and do it in person. Save yourself a lot of anxiety, expense, and disappointment.

You have been warned.


[Update. Thanks, everyone, for the helpful suggestions and e-mails. Following several suggestions, I contacted my Congressman's Office (never did that before). They were quite familiar with the problem, and set up to deal with it. No promises, and it's tight, but at least I have a shot.

Seth Kaplan sent me this link and this link about the slew of passport problems. What a massive embroglio this is.

Thanks for the help.]

Comments:

Wow. Whirledview has a bunch of informative posts on this crisis, starting here:
http://whirledview.typepad.com/whirledview/2007/05/the_erratic_sta.html
Their advice: call your Congressperson! Good luck.
 

This has been happening so frequently and to so many people that the gummint has relented on their passport requirement for trips to Canada/Mexico/Caribbean (Arne types while ensconsed in a hotel on a Caribbean isle), and will not require passports for a while. But because of this new requirement, the passport offices have been totally swamped, and the backlog is terrible. Lots of horror stories about people losing non-ref tickets for their honeymoons, and such.

Yes, if you don't have a passport, start early There's "expedited" service for a fee, but no guarantees that "expedited" service will get you a passport by a fixed date.

I suspect that maybe I ought to get myself a new passport too ... down to only two blank visa pages even with almost four years left on it. Plan ahead as they say, and don't get caught flat-footed.

Cheers,
 

Welcome to Bush's America where we specialize in loyalty and incompetence. Just be thankful all you need is a passport.
 

Do indeed call your Congressman immediately, explain the situation and ask for assistance. Then call the State Dept. Passport Service (with whom you've already spoken) and inform them that you have called your Congressman. This will instantly get the cased flagged as a "Congressional" and should expedite its processing.
 

I must have been lucky, as I sent my passport renewal application in the last week of May and received my new passport in a little over 3 weeks.

*NOTE* - I did not pay for the expedited service.
 

No wonder you "don't love your country" Brian. Oh well, now you will have some more free time to plot her downfall.
 

I talked to a csr at Passport Info Ctr today who said that if there's not an appt available through the automated system and you are traveling within 3 days, they can make you an appointment, which corresponds with the info you received on special treatment if you are within three days. Maybe if you call tomorrow (within three business days of Sunday July 1st) you'll get through to a csr who will make you the appointment you need. Worth a try.
Thanks for the tip. I'm going to make an appointment as soon as possible for my July 25th trip, even though I'll be sending in an expedited request as soon as my birth certificate arrives in the mail.
 

Charles,

Just for the record: the fact that I don't "love my country" in the patriotic sense does not mean that I don't want the country to do well. Of course I want the U.S. to succeed, for that would advance the general good of our community, and nothing I said suggests otherwise. The only way to have productive discussions about serious issues is to not misconstrue the positions of those you disagree with.

But your lack of sympathy is duly noted.

Brian
 

I wouldn't blame passport problems entirely on Bush. Back in 2000, I had an unbelievably difficult time trying to get my first passport.

I had used the expedite service, and people had told me it was on its way in the mail, but it didn't come, so they told me to go into the regional office at Chicago. The problem was that my parents hadn't filled out certain kinds of paperwork when I was born in the Panama Canal Zone, so even though I had my own birth certificate, I found out (two days prior to departure) that I had to prove the citizenship of my parents in order to prove my own citizenship.

Unbelievably, I found a tattered copy of my mother's birth certificate, and took it to the office the day prior to my trip. After waiting in the office for six hours, I was called to the window to show them my materials, and they looked at the certificate and were grumbling about the tear. "Can we accept that?" I blurted out something in frustration like "Oh, for the love of God, come on!" I was fixed with a hard stare, and they returned to grumbling. They decided to accept the certificate, and then the clerk leaned forward and said, "You know, you almost talked yourself out of a passport!"

But they needed a day for processing, so I still missed my trip--my first professional trip to Peru, and had to reschedule for two days later, costing me $500 in flight-related nonsense and $125 in adjudication fees. I joked at the time if I had been deported to Panama, at least I would have been making progress toward Peru.

To take that system, which is notoriously not focused on customer service, but border integrity, and apply the pressure of Canada/Mexico requirements is simply a nightmare. They should fix their systemic problems prior to implementing such a large change. Best of luck to you, Brian and Stephanie!
 

Brian:

I thought it was very empathetic of me to make excuses for your "I don't love my country" comment. Hopefully, you are able convince someone tommorow (within the 3 days) either on the phone, to get an appointment, or in person.
 

Fortunately, I am comforted by knowing that my country loves me, and is doing everything it can for me.

LOL ... sounds like your country's had its *feelings* hurt! Who knew America was reading your blog?

Seriously, good luck w/ the passport.
 

Charles [after a gentle admonishment from Prof. Tamanaha]:

I thought it was very empathetic of me to make excuses for your "I don't love my country" comment.

Oh. I thought you were just being a jerk. My mistake. Sorry, and I hope this post clears the situation up in a way you can understand.

Cheers,
 

Apology accepted, Arne. The only way to have productive discussions about serious issues is to not misconstrue the positions of those you disagree with.
 

Zzzzzzzziiinnnggg. 40,000 feet above target. Decrease the elevation a bit, Sarge.

Cheers,
 

A few years ago I needed a passport urgently. I was able to renew through a private company who has some arrangement with the passport agency. They “walked it through” and I had a renewed passport in 48 hours, door-to-door. It was around 150$ or so at that time, but it might be worth calling. It was Passport Express, www.passportexpress.com.

One might speculate as to who holds a financial interest in those companies, but such is the nature of government these days. Less than ideal, for sure, but it worked in a pinch.
 

You know, this passport thing is a huge problem, made worse by both an unresponsive bureaucracy (really, one of the worst things about modern government is that somewhere along the line government agencies started getting the idea that they had the right not to answer their phones with live persons and provide information regarding the status of matters within their offices!); and also by a too-quick implementation of the new Canada/Mexico/Carribean travel passport rules.

That said, I have to say that there is a certain part of me that is actually unsympathetic. Here's a bunch of people mad because they may not be able to go on foreign summer vacations because of government incompetence. Meanwhile, this is the experience of government EVERY DAY for poor people dealing with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, WIC, the Department of Public Social Services, county jails, Medicaid, public hospitals (see, for instance, the recent death in the emergency room of LA King-Harbor Hospital), and all sorts of other government agencies that are underfunded and overwhelmed.

Really, there's a lot of class bias in both the reporting of this story and the calls for its resolution. In truth, we (meaning the upper and middle classes) would all survive if we didn't get to leave the country this summer. It is too bad we can't say that about the lower classes and their dealings with government.
 

Good points, Dilan.
 

Dude, that sucks.

I'm going to Germany this summer for my brother's wedding and I went to get my passport back in early March. When I walked into the passport office a woman with a feverish look in her eyes held 5 $20 bills in my face and asked if she could take my appointment. Now,I was told when I made the appointment that it would take 8 weeks to get the passport, but the website said it would be 10 weeks. This lady's $100 would have paid for my passport, but adding ten weeks to the three it would take to get another appointment, plus the utter bloody uncertainty as to how long it would actually take to get the damn passport, I passed on her offer. I got my passport a month ago and am all set, thank goodness. But man, to follow all the rules and plan ahead and still get screwed, that really sucks.
 

apianway:

A few years ago I needed a passport urgently. I was able to renew through a private company who has some arrangement with the passport agency. They “walked it through” and I had a renewed passport in 48 hours, door-to-door. It was around 150$ or so at that time, but it might be worth calling. It was Passport Express, www.passportexpress.com.

While I've used such services to get visa on short notice, I'm not sure these folks can get something out of the U.S. State Department (or whoever does it nowadays) any faster than you could yourself by standing in line. But sometimes it pays to pay someone else to stand in line....

Getting a "green card" is much worse; I've had my 6 month temp expire while waiting for the real one. They sent me back the app almost a half year later to say my picture was the wrong size. I had two different size pictures with me when I turned in the app in person, and the person there could/should have told me then and there that the ones I submitted were the wrong size; as it turns out I simply sent the other set of pictures I had with me at the time back in after they told me much later that the first ones wouldn't do, and they were the right size....

Bureaucracy; you gotta love it ... because you don't have a choice.

Cheers,
 

I'm not buying it,Brian, and I've said before how much appreciate your point of view.

(1) both the DHS and the state department have been saying for a couple of years that when they eliminate the Drivers License/Birth Certificate option, doing so is going to create a bottle neck. those of us who don't expect the government to do us special favors got our documents in order well in advance. You've got no business bothering a Representative with your delinquency, not while Dick Cheney is making off with the Constitution.

(2) I'm also not buying your claim not to love america. by citing the millions of people killed by States, you reveal how betrayed you feel by a concept you obviously once held very dear to yourself, one to which you are obviously emotionally attached.

Families, for that matter, have killed many more of their members in what we today call "domestic violence."

Are you going to tell me that you don't love your family because of the history families or'family'?

that said, I admire your publically asserting as much about America. like the pathological violence that regrettably comes with people who claim to love family and the notion of 'family,' loving one's state or nation gets abused too. Americans should think critically about what it means to love their country.
 

The expedited service worked for me at least, last year. I know it's elitist -- Dilan is completely right about the whole topic -- but pay the money and they rush it. Much better than risking a travel/etc. disaster. But maybe the expedited are backlogged now too? I don't know.
 

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