RELEASE: Gottheimer Urges State Department to Address Massive Passport Backlog Hurting North Jersey Families

 

Above: Gottheimer at the Paramus Post Office today, joined by North Jersey residents impacted by the passport backlog.

PARAMUS, NJ — Today, July 19, 2021, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) highlighted the massive, months-long backlog of 1.5 million to 2 million passport applications and renewals currently holding up international travel for millions of Americans, including families in Northern New Jersey. According to the U.S. State Department, passport service by mail can now take up to 18 weeks, compared to six to eight weeks prior to the pandemic. Expedited service can now take 12 weeks, up from four to six weeks before the pandemic. In a letter today, Gottheimer urged the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs take critical measures to immediately reduce the passport backlog, expand in-person renewals, expedite surge staffing, address additional delays in the process, such as with U.S. Postal Service shipping, and to work with Congress to make additional improvements.

Gottheimer and his constituent services team have received several hundred passport inquiries from North Jersey residents. Gottheimer’s office has already helped and closed nearly 200 cases since the spring, but, unfortunately, due to the backlogs, not everyone has been able to get a passport in time.

“Hundreds of local families are rightly frustrated and outraged,” Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) said today. “For far too many, this unprecedented passport backlog is costing families not only their vacations, but, in some cases, thousands of dollars in cancelled trips. I’m here today to strongly urge the State Department to take urgent measures to immediately reduce the passport backlog and expand in-person renewals, and to highlight how our congressional office is helping and can help North Jersey families.”

Gottheimer was joined today by New Milford resident Cheryl Levy, who had applied for a passport three months prior to a July anniversary trip abroad. With the help of Gottheimer’s constituent services team, Ms. Levy was able to get her passport the day before her departure.

Gottheimer was also joined today by Upper Saddle River residents Dr. Sanjeev Patel and Dr. Christine Gerula, who had applied to replace their daughter’s passport two months prior to a family trip abroad. Despite waiting two months, calling passport agents daily for updates — waiting on hold for hours each time, and a trip to a regional passport facility in Connecticut where they waited in line and were eventually turned away, they had to cancel their trip and incur travel charges.

According to a recent briefing with the National Passport Center, there is not a single in-person appointment available nationwide for the next three weeks. 

Watch the press conference here.

The text of the letter can be found here and below.

July 19, 2021

Mr. Ian G. Brownlee

Acting Assistant Secretary

Bureau of Consular Affairs

U.S. Department of State

600 19th Street NW

Washington, DC 20036

 

Dear Acting Assistant Secretary Brownlee:

There is an unprecedented backlog of passport applications because of the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently hindering international travel for millions of Americans. I strongly urge the State Department to take urgent measures to immediately reduce the backlog, expand in-person renewals, and ease travel for my constituents as soon as possible. 

Since the United States has made progress toward recovering from the pandemic, many Americans are seeking to resume travel abroad as vaccination rates increase and international travel restrictions are rescinded. However, those who need to apply for or renew their passports are currently facing wait times of up to eighteen weeks. As a result, in recent months, passport inquiries have spiked to become the single leading type of constituent casework inquiries to Congressional offices. For instance, my office is currently assisting constituents with more than 324 passport cases.

Congressional offices are even struggling to help secure emergency passport appointments for those facing extraordinary life-or-death emergencies. While I appreciate that the pandemic presented challenges for the Bureau, I believe more must be done to cut the current backlog and reduce processing times for Americans. Furthermore, the strict exceptions and limited availability of appointments for urgent non-emergency travel has resulted in a complicated and unworkable patchwork system, with constituents traveling across state lines just to try to secure an appointment, people selling passport appointments online, and many Americans losing thousands of dollars because they are being forced to cancel and rebook travel arrangements. 

The Bureau must do everything possible please to achieve full in-person staffing at passport processing centers, as well as expedite surge staffing to help reduce the backlog as soon as possible. In addition, I encourage State to expand in-person renewals and passport acceptance fairs, address additional delays in the process such as USPS shipping, and work with Congress to make additional improvements. 

Thank you for your prompt attention to this issue that is very important to my constituents and our nation’s economic recovery and vitality. 

Sincerely,

Josh Gottheimer

MEMBER OF CONGRESS

 

Gottheimer’s full press conference remarks as prepared for delivery are below.

Right now, as you may have heard from your friends and neighbors, there is a massive and unprecedented months-long backlog of passport applications — in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — and it’s currently holding up international travel for millions of Americans, including for many families here in Northern New Jersey.

For far too many, this unprecedented passport backlog is costing families not only their vacations, but thousands of dollars in cancelled trips. I’m here today to strongly urge the State Department to take urgent measures to immediately reduce the passport backlog and expand in-person renewals, and to highlight how our congressional office is helping and can help North Jersey families.

The Paramus Post Office, just behind me, serves as a passport acceptance facility for our area — where, normally, families would be able to easily apply for their new passports. To put this in perspective, in normal times, the turnaround time for a passport renewal is eight to ten weeks, or, when expedited, four to six weeks. 

Right now, for hundreds of local residents and families — and millions across the nation — there is a massive delay, up to eighteen weeks, more than four months, to apply for or renew a passport. The expedited service can now take up to 12 weeks — nearly 3 months. And so many folks don’t know about the delay, so they are rightly surprised when suddenly their vacation is approaching fast and furiously and there’s no word about their passport. 

This isn’t just disrupting travel plans, but hurting families in their pocket-books when international plans have to be suddenly cancelled, with steep fees and penalties, and, of course, it’s damaging the travel industry and our economic recovery, that’s had a rough enough year-and-a-half. It’s also impacting our businesses, as many North Jersey companies have had to delay important international business travel. 

Here’s what we know right now:

Thanks to our progress recovering from COVID-19, vaccination rates continue to rise and international travel, thankfully, is largely back up — meaning many Americans have resumed travel abroad — for business, vacation, and to finally be reconnected with friends and loved ones. Americans, who’ve been vaccinated, can now travel to England, France, throughout Europe, Mexico, Africa, South America, and other destinations. By the way, that’s another reason, if you haven’t yet, to get vaccinated.

Because of the surge in summer travel, there’s currently an estimated backlog of about 2 million applicants for passports and renewals. Yes, two million. As I said earlier, that’s led to upwards of a four-month backlog to get through the system – and about four or six weeks shorter, if you pay to expedite it. 

As a result, in recent months, congressional offices like mine have seen a massive spike in constituents contacting us to help. In fact, passport help is the single leading inquiry my office is receiving right now. 

We’re currently assisting North Jersey constituents with more than 320 passport cases – and we’ve already helped and closed nearly 200 cases since this past March alone. My team is doing a phenomenal job pushing the State Department as hard as they can to help our residents, and you’ll hear from a couple of them today. 

But what used to be a process of a day or two, for us to help a local resident, has turned into weeks and weeks of waiting.

Congressional offices are now even struggling to help secure emergency passport appointments for those facing extraordinary life-or-death emergencies. 

From what we’ve been told in our briefings, the pandemic has presented major challenges for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. But strict exceptions and limited availability of in-person appointments for urgent, non-emergency travel has created a complicated and unworkable patchwork system. 

Now, North Jersey residents are choosing to travel across state lines, heading as far away as New Hampshire and Vermont for in-person appointments — if they’re able to find an appointment at all. 

People are even selling passport appointment slots online.

Unfortunately, too many are left with no success in getting an in-person passport appointment. 

That’s left many Americans losing thousands and thousands of their hard-earned dollars, as they’re being forced to rebook and even outright cancel their travel arrangements.

I want to point to some good outcomes. Cheryl Levy, who is with us today, reached out to us on June 22nd, after applying for a passport in March, to get ready for a tenth wedding anniversary trip in July to Mexico with her husband Mark. 

When she got in touch with us, they had two weeks left before their trip, and their passports still hadn’t shown up. Through our work with the National Passport Center, the good news is that we were able to get her passport the day before her departure. Cheryl was thrilled, to say the least — she even sent us a selfie smiling with her passport when it arrived!

For others, especially in dire life-or-death circumstances, timing can be down to the wire:

One North Jersey resident was trying to travel abroad to see a dying grandparent, but passport agents wouldn’t rush the application, even though they had applied months prior. After an hour on the phone with the National Passport Center, our team was able to get the resident an emergency appointment and a passport — a successful outcome that shouldn’t have taken so long.

Unfortunately, because of these backlogs, not everyone has been able to get a passport in time — despite everyone’s best efforts. 

So, if you have a trip coming up, one of my biggest messages today, is please prepare early. 

Dr. Sanjeev Patel and Dr. Christine Gerula, cardiologists from Upper Saddle River, who are both with us today, had a family trip to Aruba scheduled for July 8th. Two months earlier, in May, they reported their daughter’s passport as missing, and went to the local library to apply for a new one in person. Then, after nearly two months of waiting and calling daily for updates, staying on hold for five to six hours each time, they were finally told the form from the library had not been filled-in correctly. They even drove to the Stamford, Connecticut, passport facility, waited in line, but were turned away. Ultimately, the family had to cancel their trip and incurred travel charges they couldn’t avoid.

They’re not alone, and hundreds of local families are rightly frustrated and outraged:

Families used to be able to utilize regional passport facilities for walk-in appointments that would allow them to get a passport same-day. You can still go to Post Offices like this one and apply for a new passport, renew an old one, and even expedite it, for an extra fee, but we know there’s a massive delay. And here’s the deal: Even as our nation rebounds, passport agents at our regional facilities are informing our residents who show up that they’re no longer accepting walk-ins for same-day turnaround. And the post office is telling folks that their normal processing is way off schedule. 

Residents are calling the passport hotline numbers to try to get an update on the status of their passport, and they’re spending four to six hours on hold — where the hold-time was previously just a few minutes.

Folks are spending hours each day refreshing the online passport website, hoping that an in-person appointment will become available. And appointments that do become available are taken in a matter of seconds.

We’re told life and death emergencies will be prioritized, but it’s nearly impossible for residents to get these appointments.

North Jersey residents have reported they’ve paid extra to have their passports expedited and shipped, but they’re not being processed in a timely manner or delivered on time — forcing some to miss their trips.

And families aren’t able to leave voicemails or get responses to emails, despite the National Passport Center offering these contacts — leaving many residents in the dark.

These passport process failures and delays are outrageous and unacceptable, especially here in the greatest country in the world. 

That’s why, today, I’m formally requesting that the Bureau of Consular Affairs, within the State Department, take urgent measures to immediately reduce the backlog.

The Bureau must do everything possible to expand in-person renewals and achieve full in-person staffing at passport processing centers, as well as expedite surge staffing to help reduce the backlog as soon as humanly possible. I know that we are all living in the wake of the pandemic, but there’s no reason we can’t reassign folks in the government to fix this problem. 

I’m also encouraging the State Department to expand passport acceptance fairs, address additional delays in the process, such as with U.S. Postal Service shipping, and to please work with Congress to make additional improvements that are needed.

Working together, I believe we can address this challenge quickly and measurably, not only for the families and businesses in my District, but for Americans nationwide.

A few reminders — let’s call it a checklist — if you’re planning an international trip, please check your passports early and make sure they don’t need to be renewed. If they do, please get your renewal forms in early.

If you have the time, if you have months, you can apply for a passport or renewal at the post office, the library, or your county clerk. 

If you don’t have the time, you need to go to a passport regional center in NYC, Philadelphia, and you need an appointment — they’re not carrying same-day slots.

According to a briefing with the National Passport Center, in the next three weeks there is not a single appointment available.

Another key reminder: Most countries will not permit a traveler to enter their country unless the passport is set to expire at least six months after the final day of travel. So, the golden rule with passports is: your passports should have at least six months of validity when traveling internationally.

If you’re having trouble, or if you’re facing an emergency, I’m here to help and so is my fabulous team. We stand ready to assist. You can call my office at 201-389-1100 or reach out at gottheimer.house.gov.

Thank you again and God bless.

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