Travelers Face Frustrations With
Passport Rule Changes
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: June 7, 2007
HOUSTON, June 6 — With government phone lines jammed
by record numbers of passport-seekers, Veronica
Alvarez and three anxious friends hoping to travel
to Cancun next week showed up at the federal
building here on Wednesday at 3 a.m.
There were 11 people in line ahead of them.
“We’ve been calling for a week every day,” said Ms.
Alvarez, 29, a bank clerk, who joined about 1,200
people who have been besieging the downtown office
here daily for word on their passports, some of
which were requested in February.
The State Department has acknowledged long delays
from “unprecedented demand” after new rules
requiring passports for travelers returning from
Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. It expects to
announce new measures soon to ease the nationwide
Already, special teams to handle the backlog have
been dispatched to Houston and other cities, said
Eric Botts, the State Department’s assistant
regional director at the Houston Passport Agency,
who himself has been helping control crowds and
expedite applications outside the thronged Mickey
Leland Federal Building.
“Can I get your cooperation?” he repeatedly asked
the crowd wrapped around the building on Wednesday
morning. Those seeking to leave the country
imminently were shuttled to the front of the line
for quick attention. “I think you’re in great shape
today,” he encouraged the dubious. “But I want to
let you know it’s going to be a long day.”
In his 13 years here, Mr. Botts said, “this is the
busiest it’s ever been.” But he and the regional
director, Jacqueline Harley-Bell, said the office
had been working late nights, Saturdays and holidays
to vet applicants and produce 15,000 to 18,000
passports a week, up from the usual 10,000 to
The scene was less frantic Wednesday at the Franklin
D. Roosevelt Station on Third Avenue and 55th Street
in Manhattan, where Manuel Suarez, a postal clerk
processing passports, was telling a short line of
applicants that the normal wait of four to six weeks
was now at least 10 weeks.
Even expedited service, which costs extra, can take
two or three weeks, complained Arthur Kuyumchian,
28, a trader who was rushing to replace a lost
passport. “I have to travel in two weeks, and if I
can’t get that passport I can’t even get on the
plane,” Mr. Kuyumchian said.
The problem extends nationwide, said Rob Smith,
executive director of the National Association of
Passport and Visa Services in Silver Spring, Md., an
organization that represents about two dozen of the
largest companies registered with the Passport
Office to hand-carry or otherwise expedite a limited
number of applications for a fee higher than what
the government charges.
This year, Smith said, the government is expected to
more than double the seven million passports issued
Members of Congress have been drawn into the fray as
constituents with airline tickets in hand demand to
know why their passports have been held up,
sometimes after paying the government a $60
expediting fee in addition to the regular charge of
$97 for a passport. Private expediting services can
charge hundreds of dollars above that.
“Compared to last year, we’re getting three times
the number of calls,” said Matt Mackowiak, a
spokesman for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison,
Republican of Texas, who has three people on staff
handling passport problems.
Much of the spike in applications is attributed to
the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went
into effect Jan. 23 and requires passports, merchant
mariner documents or frequent-traveler Nexus cards
for air travelers returning from Canada, Mexico,
Central and South America, the Caribbean and
Bermuda. Next January, the requirement is likely to
be extended to ship, rail and road travelers.
But somehow, the government seemed caught by
surprise when crowds began besieging passport
offices this spring.
Even now, callers to the automated national passport
line (1-877-487-2778) are told that because of
“unprecedented” volume, appointments can be given
only to travelers departing in the next two weeks.
Callers who are leaving within two weeks are then
transferred to a 24-hour automated line that often
says they cannot be connected because of the volume
of calls and urges them to call back during
nighttime hours. The line then goes dead.
“We are also experiencing a very high volume of
e-mails,” the passport office Web site says.
“Responses to e-mails may take 2-4 days.”
Would-be travelers waiting outside the passport
offices on Wednesday in Houston voiced varying
degrees of resignation and frustration.
“Basically, they’ve taken my money,” said Kevin
Owens, 39, an oil industry employee, who sent in an
expedited application April 20 and, with a June 14
trip to Jamaica looming, was still passportless.
“The whole process is —” he searched for a word —
John DeMers, 54, a Houston writer on food and
culture, said he was due to leave Tuesday on a
10-stop lecture tour of Europe and had finally come
to the office to see what happened to the passport
he applied for in March. “It’s in limbo somewhere,”
Carol McCourt, 45, a kindergarten teacher, flew in
from Tulsa, Okla., to check on the passport she
needed to meet her 15-year-old son in France. She
did not feel like celebrating much, she said, “but
today’s my birthday.”
Christopher D. Blinky, a passport office employee,
then appeared by her side with a form to fill out
for quick action.
A nervous Brianna Pollinger, 35, of suburban Katy,
Tex., arrived at the passport office on Tuesday not
knowing whether she would be able to leave Friday on
a 10-year anniversary trip to Mexico with her
husband. But after waiting nearly eight hours, she
emerged with a prized blue-covered booklet. Was she
mollified? “Oh, no,” she said. “I definitely
Matthew R. Warren contributed reporting from New