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Sat, Jun 09, 2007

White House Waives New Passport Rules

State Department Admits Surge Of Applications Wasn't Expected

Talk about a governmental logjam. Because of a new passport rule that took effect in January, the State Department has issued more than 4.5 million passports this year, a 60 percent increase from last year, and millions more are waiting to be processed. The wait time for a passport application to be processed has doubled over last year.

The new rule requires those traveling to and from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a passport to enter or re-enter the United States... just in time for the peak travel season.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative took effect January 23 and was mandated by Congress in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to strengthen border security and facilitate entry into the United States for citizens and legitimate international visitors, said the State Department.

But, that summer vacation may be saved yet. The White House announced Friday the new rule will be waived until Sept. 30, 2007. To regain entry to the US those traveling to the affected Western Hemisphere countries will have to provide only a photo ID such as a driver's license and proof that a passport application has been submitted for processing.

"That's great news," Doug Le told the LA Times. He said he has been waiting 12 weeks for passports for his sons for a Bahamas trip next week. "I was about to write to my congressman. I'm glad they're doing something."

Russ Knocke, Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said only travelers who have already applied for passports are eligible for the waiver, according to the New York Post Star.

"Individuals who have not yet applied for a passport should not expect to be accommodated," Knocke said.

To travelers who have been forced to cancel cruises and postpone vacations, the governmental crawfishing is of little consolation.

"It's too little, too late," Jana Beilstein said. She told the Times she lost her $4000 25th anniversary cruise because she didn't receive her passport in time. "They should have had things in place before they started any of this. How many other people are out thousands of dollars like me? It's been a horrible, horrible experience."

The passport agency said it has been inundated with applications and has not been able to keep up since the new rule took effect. This waiver will decrease the pressure and allow applications for overseas travel to be processed more quickly.

"Someone who goes to France could be put in front of the line because you would need a passport to enter that country," said Representative Heather A. Wilson (R-NM). "This is the relief my constituents needed."

She and other members of Congress have fielded thousands of complaints on the issue. "Basically they have acknowledged that there is a problem and it will take the rest of the summer to work this out," Wilson said.

The assistant secretary for consular affairs, Maura Harty, acknowledged the deluge of applications was not expected.

"What we did not anticipate adequately enough was the American citizens' willingness and desire to comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the timeframe that they did," Harty said.

She said 145 people had been hired last month and she expects another 400 to be hired this quarter, according to the Post Star.

The Senate responded to the uproar Thursday by proposing an amendment requiring the secretary of State to show Congress enough people had been hired to handle the problem, according to the Times.

The waivers expire September 30. The "proof of application" form should be on the passport website shortly.

FMI: www.travel.state.gov/passport

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