House votes to delay requiring passports for N. American travel

Sunday, June 17, 2007
Revolving doors led to the interior of Arkansas Passport Center in Technology Park at Hot Springs, Ark., during the formal opening of the facility, media tour and ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and State Department officials said Thursday a new printing facility will ease the backlog of passport applications caused by new security rules implemented this year. (Alison B. Harbour ~ The Sentinel-Record)

WASHINGTON -- Congress is moving to postpone until June 2009 requiring passports for land and sea travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean after complaints about vacation-ruining delays by the State Department in issuing them.

The House passed the 17-month delay Friday after a key Senate committee approved it a day earlier.

The State Department has been flooded with applications since new rules went into effect in January requiring passports for air travelers returning from the same destinations. The resulting backlog has caused delays of up to three months for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of people.

In response, the government last week temporarily waived a passport requirement for air travel, provided people can demonstrate they've applied.

The Homeland Security Department is still pressing ahead to require passports of everyone crossing into the United States from Canada or Mexico beginning in January 2008 -- a rule that some experts believe will lead to a fourfold increase in demand for new passports.

The House voted 379-45 Friday to include the delay as part of a $37.4 billion homeland security spending bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved the same provision as part of its version of the bill.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff expressed disappointment with what Congress wants to do.

"To simply kick it down the road and put it into a position where we're going to wait a year and a half is to really create a window of vulnerability," he said.

The application surge is the result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that since January has required U.S. citizens to use passports when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air. It is part of a broader package of immigration rules enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Lawmakers have been besieged with pleas for help from constituents who can't get their passports even though they applied up to four months ago.

Last year, Congress gave the Homeland Security and State departments additional time to get ready for the new passport rules, but they opted not to take advantage of the leniency. Now, increasingly frustrated lawmakers want to mandate the delay.

"The administration is walking blithely toward a cliff with this program, and they're threatening to take millions of Americans with them," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "Their competence in being able to get this right was already in question, and when they keep insisting they'll be ready in six months, so is their judgment."

The surge in applications has doubled target turnaround times for passport applications from six to 10-12 weeks, and 500,000 applications have already taken longer.

Those numbers pale in comparison to what lies ahead.

According to government estimates, about 6 million Americans will need formal documents to travel to the Caribbean, Canada or Mexico by air or sea. The estimated need for land crossings is more than four times that: 27 million Americans over the next five years. Those numbers do not include the regular year-to-year demand for passports.

Last year, the State Department processed 12.1 million passports. This year, officials expect to process about 18 million. The department received 1 million applications in December, 1.8 million in January and 1.7 million in February.

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