Predicted But Unplanned-For Consequences Of New Passport Rules

January 1, 2007, marked a change. For the first time, you are now required to show a passport on flights to and from Canada and Mexico. Want to hop down to Cancun for spring break? Show your papers! This will be extended in 2008, when you need your passport in order to drive across the border as well.

What, you might ask, would be the effect of doing this? Well, one would think that it would greatly increase the demand for passports, and as such our government would be prepared for the increased demand. That, of course, would be assuming intelligent government. Instead we have delays and confusion.

Similar waiting games are being played out at passport processing sites across the country as the State Department wades through an unprecedented crush of passport applications. They are pouring in at more than 1 million per month.

Passport requests usually shoot up this time of year ahead of the busy spring and summer travel season. But the department has been really swamped since the government in late January started requiring U.S. airline passengers — including children — to show a passport upon their return from Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean.

Passport applications filed between October and March are up 44 percent from the same period a year ago, the department told lawmakers this week. In February alone, applications were up 25 percent.

Because of the glut, it could take 10 weeks instead of the usual six to process routine applications, according to the department. And expedited requests, which cost an extra $60 on top of the normal $97 fee, could take four weeks instead of two.

Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this was going to happen. In a country where only about 20-25% of the population have passports, changing a rule such as this would likely result in many people who have never needed a passport to get one. Back when I was married in 2003, my wife and I went to the Bahamas without a passport. My wife is just getting hers now (because we will be flying to Mexico in May), and I wouldn’t have needed one since except for a few overseas business trips in 2004 and 2005. We’re relatively experienced travelers, but simply didn’t need passports before. Now we’re waiting as the weeks go by, hoping her passport arrives by mid-May.

Now, I’m not going to let people off the hook for not getting their passports in time. The linked AP story is full of tear-jerking stories about people who are in danger of not being able to fly out of the country because their passports are delayed. One of the themes of each story are that these are ordinary people leaving on vacations and other planned excursions. Yes, passports may be taking 10 weeks instead of the usual six. Some of these people have waited until the last minute (as my wife has done, since she put off the passport application from October until January, but luckily is still well outside the 10-week window). There’s a story about a boy going to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah. That trip has likely been planned for months. One lady had sent in her renewal application a mere 4 weeks before her planned travel, and is shocked that it’s not processed yet. From the standpoint of an journalist, hoping to tug at readers’ heartstrings, it makes sense to downplay the personal responsibility angle. But some of these people simply waited too long, and it’s their own fault for doing so.

But what about our government? They had to think that there would be an enormous influx of passport applications. Why weren’t they staffed to handle this? They say they’ll be increasing their staff, but it looks like too-little, too-late to me:

The State Department said it is working overtime to handle the load and hopes to have an additional 400 passport adjudicators by the end of next year.

Did you hear that? “By the end of next year”. That’s December 2008. By then, all the rush will have gone away, because the proposed rules about travel to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean will have been in force long enough for most regular travelers to those places to have already applied for their passport. So they’ll have offices full of people with very little work to do. Good work, government! Way to respond to the needs of your constituents!

This is what happens when you put decisions into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats. In the name of security, the government decides that American citizens entering the country from certain oft-traveled countries will now need to show their passport. Then, when the new rules create an “unprecedented” rise in the number of passport applications received, they act shocked! They make rules without preparing for the consequences, and it’s the people who have to suffer through delays, while government bureaucrats are getting paid overtime.

  • Birdie

    Amazing, isn’t it, that the government never misses an opportunity to grow unnecessarily larger?

  • SurfaceRust

    “Now, I’m not going to let people off the hook for not getting their passports in time.”

    You might reconsider given that all this new passport requirement does is take Americans another step closer to living in a gigantic jail. There is no reason why anyone should be delayed coming or going who is otherwise not a suspect in a crime. It is absurd.

  • Eric B

    I’m one of those affected.

    I believe they still have my original birth certificate – I went from Tucson to Las Angeles to get my passport after applying for it (expedited) a month early – I only had that much advance notice for my trip. Luckily, I have my certificate and made my trip successfully.

    But as I sent my information in to the acceptance facility, they never told me it might take a month or more. Even when I checked a week later, they said it might be up to 3 weeks instead of two.

    Many of us who were traveling internationally were never aware of these problems. These should have been mentioned at the passport acceptance facility, on (they weren’t in late January when I applied)

    I am still in shock that they didn’t hire double the workers in the processing plants in anticipation (not to moention where they were processing the checks – that was outsourced.)

  • Dave Daurelle

    I don’t think this is one you should be blaming on the bureaucrats. Look a little closer at what confress did with funding at the same time they passed this goody. No additional funding, no additional processors. Yes, the department could have screamed louder about this, but since the heads of such departments have been replaced with political appointees in an environment where sucking up is the only way to keep a job, that ain’t gonna happen.

  • Gaoshan

    We just got 2 passports back in today’s mail (one RFID chipped, the other not). They warned us that it could take 10 weeks or more and scared us into getting expedited service (for a LOT more money) They said MAYBE we would get it back in a month with this faster service. Took exactly 8 days. I think we got ripped off..

  • Equality

    I work next to a passport center. I know a couple of people that work there and they are now required to work an extra hour every day M-F and have to work a full shift on Saturday. But that is just trying to catch up with the current demand.

    Reqular passports are taking a very long time to process so I would believe the 10+ week wait. Expediated passports basically skip the queue so they get processed much faster but can’t vouch for the 1 month wait time.

  • Leon

    10 weeks! In the UK you can collect a new passport within half a day, and receive one after a first application in 6 days. It’s shocking that the US process is so slow in the first place – surely such low demand would make it easy to build a rapid system. 2 weeks seems much too long for an “expedited” application!