Passport shock

June 18, 2007

The Department of Homeland Security's failure to anticipate the impact of new passport rules for travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean has created a panic.

The first wave hit congressional offices about the time of spring break. Honeymooners and graduates quickly followed. In Baltimore, much worry surrounded high-schoolers headed off on summer exchange trips.

Since Memorial Day, the fear of being forced to cancel vacation plans because travel documents haven't yet arrived has grown to the point where federal lawmakers from Maryland and across the country have had to convert their offices into auxiliary passport agencies.

"It's just unbelievable," observed Dina Johns, now a full-time passport trouble-shooter for Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. "I'm in passport shock."

And this rule only applies to air travel. Imagine the deluge when passports are required to re-enter the United States from neighboring nations by land and sea.

A Senate committee wisely voted last week to delay that date by 17 months to June 2009 instead of next January. The Bush administration should accept the new deadline voluntarily. Even June 2009 may be too soon.

The record of this experience has been marked with blunder after blunder. Worst was the State Department's failure to hire enough additional workers to process the flood of passport applications. A process advertised on the State Department Web site to take eight to 10 weeks now takes three months, at least.

Nor are there enough people to field the panicked phone calls, which is why travelers have turned to their representatives in Congress.

Further, after a recent decision to suspend the passport requirement until September, officials failed to alert travelers that they still must carry documents required by the country they are visiting. That created problems with the airlines, which didn't want to be stuck with stranded passengers and started turning them away.

So far, congressional aides seem to have rescued most travelers. But Bridget Wang of Gaithersburg is suffering through a lot of sleepless nights. She has $7,000 at stake for a guided tour of Japan with her two daughters, whose passport renewals have been pending since March.

Now she's appealing to Mr. Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski for help. But the homeland security folks shouldn't be keeping Americans up at night.

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