Sunday, 24 June 2007

USA government refuses to learn from passport problems

From the day they went into effect in January of this year, the new USA government rules requiring passports for all travel by air between the USA and Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean (even for citizens of the USA returning home from abroad) have been a disaster.

I told them this would happen, but they wouldn’t listen. Now they want to make it much worse.

The USA Departments of State and Homeland Security failed to budget for the increase in demand for passports that would inevitably result from the so-called “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative”. They failed to consider any of the implications of the new rules for people who need passports on short notice, or who utilize the services of the State Department passport offices rather than applying by mail. And they promulgated rules that they should have known would result in a huge surge of passport applications, at the same time that they were trying to convert all their passport assembly lines to produce passports containing remotely-readable RFID chips — a project that is itself far behind schedule and has diverted far more resources than the State Department had been willing to admit it would require.

When I pointed out these omissions in comments filed for the Identity Project before the rules were finalized, and submitted a detailed analysis of the likely costs, delays, and trips that would have to be cancelled because passports could not be obtained in time, the agencies responsible for the rules responded that “the commenter presented an estimate that was overly pessimistic and represented an absolute ‘worst-case’ scenario that would rarely, if ever, be realized.” In the event, the delays in passport issuance, and the resultant costs to would-be travellers, have been even greater than I estimated.

Passports requested by mail are taking months to arrive, even if you pay extra for “expedited” service. It’s impossible to get through to the Passport Agency phone appointment system for in-person applications at passport offices unless you call in the middle of the night, and even then the earliest available appointments are typically at least a week after you call. Tens of thousands of people are having to cancel their planned summer vacations abroad, or pass up unexpected business opportunities that require international travel, because they can’t get passports in time.

The only way to jump the months-long queues is to get your Representative or Senator to intercede on your behalf. Some members of Congress have reported that the majority of their “constituent services” staff is now working on passport expediting.

Now the agencies responsible for the current passport issuance fiasco have announced their plan to extend the WHTI passport requirements from air travellers to the much larger numbers of people who cross the USA-Canada and USA Mexico borders by land, or take cruises from the USA to the Caribbean.

Have they learned anything? No.

There’s still no mention in the latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) of rush passports applied for in person at passport offices, only applications by mail. There’s still no recognition of any of the costs of travelling to one of the handful of passport offices in a few major USA cities, or any of the costs (in time and money) of getting a passport, other than the passport fee itself. And there’s still no recognition of any of the costs of being unable to travel, including lost business opportunities and having to forfeit prepayments or deposits for accommodations, tours, etc.

The agencies have made a temporary “accommodation” through 30 September 2007 for people who (1) are travelling to or from Canada or Mexico (although travellers to and from all international destinations are being affected by the passport issuance delays), and (2) have been able to get confirmation that their passport application has been accepted (which can take a week or more). They are also proposing a passport card (“passport lite”) as an alternative to a passport for some travellers. But it would have all the same problems as a passport — except that it would have a different type of RFID chip that could be read from even farther away, and would require applicants to be fingerprinted. The fee from an accredited commercial fingerprinting service would probably more than offset the slightly lower State Department fee for the passport card itself.

Finally, the agencies hold out the prospect that some state-issued identity documents like drivers licenses might be accepted at USA-Canada and USA-Mexico border crossings — but only if used by states that participate in the “REAL-ID Act” distributed national ID card scheme and database.

Under the proposed rule, passports will be required for all travel to and from Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean “as early as January 2008, and no sooner than 60 days from publication of the final rule”.

The proposal should be published in the Federal Register and available online within the next few days. You can tell the DHS and DoS what you think of this proposal through 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.

[Update: The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was published at 72 FR 35088, 26 June 2007, and is now available at under docket number USCBP-2007-0061. Comments can also be submitted and viewed through — watch out for buggy browser-specific code in the Web interface to the docket search and comment submission forms — until Monday, 27 August 2007, 5 p.m. Washington time.]

Tell them they need to recognize the right to travel (which the USA agencies dismissed in their original rulemaking), withdraw both the current WHTI passport requirement for air travel and the proposed WHTI document requirements for land and sea border crossings, repeal the REAL-ID Act, and stop trying to put RFID chips in passports, passport cards, or any other personal identification documents. Half measures and “accommodations” are not enough. It’s time to put a stop to the creation of a pervasive system of government credentials and checkpoints for surveillance and control of our movements.

Like CAPPS-II a/k/a Secure Flight a/k/a/ the Automated Targetting System, the passport schemes have failed, and we need to put a stake through their heart before they reemerge in another guise.

And speaking of Secure Flight, it’s not dead yet, according to this report on a recent travel industry gathering in Washington:

With respect to Secure Flight, the program has progressed … said Paul Leyh, deputy director for Secure Flight and transportation threat assessment and credentialing, Department of Homeland Security. Leyh updated the audience that the passenger information requirements for airline carriers will be coming soon.

Leyh is a new name: no one wants to stay in charge of Secure Flight long enough to be held responsible when — as is inevitable — it fails to achieve any of its putative goals. Stay tuned.

[Update, 27 August 2007: Comments on the proposed passport requirement for travel between the USA, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere in the Westen Hemisphere, as filed today by the Identity Project.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 24 June 2007, 10:36 (10:36 AM)

I agree with your point about under budgeting and being optimistic on what it will take to 'get it done'. However, change is difficult and I'm glad to see they are making the changes.

Maybe it seems irrational to expect people to think ahead, but I would think everyone got a 'notice' to go get their Passport updated on 9/11... 6 years ago...

Frankly, if you're leaving the US -- you need a passport. Over 90% of the US population has never and will never leave the country. Plan ahead. Lack of planning to get one isn't someone elses fault.

If anything, I would fault DHS with waiting so long to finally just say, "You aren't going out of country without one."

I realize the RFID planning may be suspect -- but, I applaud their efforts for trying to improve the system and implement a 'version 1' RFID solution.

Posted by: Carl Brown, 26 June 2007, 05:25 ( 5:25 AM)

" I would think everyone got a 'notice' to go get their Passport updated on 9/11... 6 years ago..."

Well, that wasn't always allowed. Four years ago, I got married and sent in my passport (which wasn't set to expire until 2007) with a new photo and a renewal application, along with the information and documentation about my name change.

The Passport office (or whatever they were called then) sent me back my original passport, check and application, telling me that they just updated my name and that I wasn't due to renew my passport until 2007. So now I'm stuck with the long wait, just like everyone else. Fortunately, my next trip isn't until Christmas. Hopefully, I'll have my new passport by then.

Posted by: Jeanette, 9 July 2007, 06:25 ( 6:25 AM)

We applied for our children's US citizenship registration and passports through the consulate in Edinburgh, Scotland by post on Monday 6 August; we attended for interview on Tuesday 21 August (could have gone a few days earlier, actually), and received the passports on Tuesday 28 August. So at least some part of the system is working!

Posted by: Peter, 29 August 2007, 09:54 ( 9:54 AM)

Did you have passport problems in 2007?

I work with a law firm that filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. State Department for the passport problems in 2007.

The suit represents everyone who submitted the $60 expedite fee for a rush passport and didn't receive their passport within 21 days or a refund. Anyone who's experienced problems since 2001 can join. It's worth checking out.

You can learn more about the case at the firm's Web site --

Posted by: Meredith, 8 January 2009, 15:29 ( 3:29 PM)
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