WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Friday temporarily waived some of its new, post-Sept. 11 requirements for flying abroad, hoping to help irate summer travelers whose trips have been jeopardized by delays in processing their passports.
The change would aid those fliers awaiting a U.S. passport to meet the new rule requiring one for travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. But it won't clear the way for travelers who haven't already applied for a passport.
There is still no passport required for Americans driving across the Canadian or Mexican borders or taking sea cruises, although those travelers are expected to need passports under new rules beginning next year.
Easing the rules should allow the State Department to catch up with a massive surge in applications that has overwhelmed passport processing centers since the rule took effect this year, officials said. The resulting backlog has caused up to three-month delays for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of travelers.
Until the end of September, travelers will be allowed to fly without a passport if they present a State Department receipt, showing they had applied for a passport, and government-issued identification, such as a driver's license.
Travelers showing only receipts would receive additional security scrutiny, which could include extra questioning or bag checks.
DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said the easing of the passport rule would only affect those who have already applied for passports — not those who apply in coming days for travel later this summer.
"Individuals who have not yet applied for a passport should not expect to be accommodated," Knocke said.
Lawmakers were critical.
"This is further evidence that the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are simply not ready to make this program work as well as it must," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
The application surge is the result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that since January has required U.S. citizens to use passports when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air. It is part of a broader package of immigration rules enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a briefing Friday morning, Maura Harty, the assistant secretary for consular affairs, acknowledged that the State Department did not expect the flood of applications.
"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.
Harty said the department had hired 145 people last month to work on the backlog and would hire 400 more people this quarter.
Last year, the agency processed 12.1 million passports. This year, officials expect to process about 18 million, she said. The department received 1 million applications in December, 1.8 million January and 1.7 million in February.
Turnaround times for passports were bumped up from six to 10-12 weeks after the surge, Harty said. But 500,000 applications have already taken longer, she said.
Carrying out the new rules while trying to process existing applications has been akin to "changing out the aircraft engine in flight," she said. Still, the agency expects to eliminate the backlog and meet the new standard of 10-12 weeks before the end of September, she said.
Friday's change would help those like Judy and Darrell Green, of Rifle, Colo., who are still waiting to hear whether their son-in-law's passport will arrive in time for a a family vacation to Mexico to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary and Darrell's 60th birthday.
Darrell Green's passport arrived Thursday, only after Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., helped expedite it. Their son-in-law expects to get his Friday with the help of his congresswoman.
"It makes you feel kind of frantic because you've spent all that money," Judy Green said. "It seems like this happens a lot in government. I don't think it's a bad law. They needed to have looked at it more or phased it in."
Lawmakers, who have been pushing for the change for weeks, say they are exasperated that it took so long.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said his office has had to intervene in the cases of more than 1,400 Minnesotans frustrated by the backlog.
"DHS's decision to suspend is simply common sense, and frankly, should have been made months ago," Coleman said.
This summer also may not spell the end of the passport crunch.
Homeland Security has insisted it plans to go ahead with a January 2008 start for requiring passports at all land border crossing in the United States — a security measure that could trigger a new frenzy of applications.
The State Department is still working on creating a cheaper, passcard alternative for such land crossings.
Lawmakers are already warning that they have serious doubts that the administration will be able to avoid even worse backlogs.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said Congress has given the State Department the flexibility to wait until June 1, 2009, to carry out the land and sea passport requirements. On Friday, he strongly urged the department to take them up on it.
"They continue to insist on the January deadline," Voinovich said of the administration.