Passport to a headache

Monday, May 14, 2007
Photo illustration by KIT DOYLE and SPENCER CRAMER

The passport crisis has found its way to the office of U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.

Increased homeland security requires a passport to fly back into this country from any destination outside the United States, which now includes Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada. More passports are needed, and passport agencies haven't been able to meet the demands of travelers.

Emerson has taken it upon herself to do some damage control as flights draw near for Missouri residents who are waiting for their passports.

"As far as passports and travel, this is the most complicated period that I've seen in 26 years working in the congressional office," said Lloyd Smith, Emerson's chief of staff. He said that it has added about a hundred cases to their workload.

In one case, Emerson's office went as far as getting an airline to delay a flight. A woman got caught in the bustle when her husband, who was in Iraq, was being restationed in Germany. The woman was given the chance to visit him on short notice, but she needed a passport first.

A clearing house was set up for Congress to get through to passport agencies. Smith said the option has always been available through Congressional Liaison, only there are more people manning the phones now.

Sarah Campbell of Cape Girardeau has a $3,500 trip to Jamaica on the line, and she's supposed to leave this weekend but is still waiting on her passport. She only needed to get it renewed because her last name has changed.

"It's pretty sad that it comes to getting your congresswoman involved," Campbell said. "There's got to be more important issues to deal with."

Campbell said she called the U.S. Department of State's National Passport Information Center at least 30 times and sat on hold for a total of about five hours in the process.

"I'm a taxpayer. I'm not going to be told to sit there and wait," she said. "Every day I called I've gotten different answers. Not real reassuring from your government."

Joseph Graham of Charleston, Mo., received his passport last week after an 11-week wait. He had a vacation planned to Jamaica. He said he has a busy schedule and doesn't have time to wait 25 minutes to call the toll-free number just to be told by a recording that the service is experiencing an unprecedented amount of calls and to try back later.

"As much money as you pay for a passport, I would think that it shouldn't be that tough with the millions of dollars they're making. They're severely understaffed," Graham said. "Plenty of people are probably looking for part-time jobs."

Smith said there may be a need for additional resources, but it takes time to train people.

"They've tried to increase hours and add overtime, but they underestimated the volume," he said. "Probably in a year from now the system will level."

The post office and the county circuit clerk's office are the two places to get a passport in Cape Girardeau.

Postal clerk Mae Thomas said she received notification in the beginning of March to start telling people that getting a passport takes eight to 10 weeks instead of six to eight. In some cases, people are waiting up to 12 weeks.

According to Thomas, she's sent out 1,302 applications for passports this year, about triple the amount during the same time frame last year.

Carolyn Kempf, president of Elite Travel in Cape Girardeau, said 30 percent of her calls in the first quarter of the year were about passport issues.

Kempf said customers are paying an additional $60 to be expedited but there are still no guarantees on when people will receive their passport. It used to be two weeks, she said. Companies are hand-delivering applications to the 17 travel agencies in the United States for customers. The cost for the service is about $100 and up.

"Travel is one of the best freedoms that we as Americans have," Kempf said. "Now we are being restricted."

tkrakowiak@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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