Lantos Calls for More Clarity from DHS to Avoid Another Passport Mess
Congressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo, San Francisco) announced today that after months of delay and mismanagement, the Department of Homeland Security has begun to clarify its policy on required identification documents for American travelers entering the United States from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.
Lantos has been active in pressuring the Department of Homeland Security to spell out and to properly publicize workable deadlines as part of a more transparent Western Hemisphere Travel policy, with plenty of notice served to travelers who will need additional identification documents at border crossings. Faced with the department's unwillingness to do so, Congress passed a law in December to set those deadlines.
Announcing a requirement for "proof of citizenship" by January 31, 2008, DHS is now stating that travelers "should no longer expect to prove identity and citizenship by relying on an oral declaration alone."
"This Orwellian language clarifies nothing and may well contribute to another run on the passport office by travelers seeking documents they don't yet need, along with the many who need passports for travel elsewhere, but are caught in a bureaucratic backlog," Lantos said. "The Administration has royally botched the implementation of new passport rules from day one. I was dismayed to discover that the United States government could not quickly and efficiently implement a very basic program to protect our borders."
The policy, known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is a homeland security-related program that already requires air travelers, but not land and sea travelers, to have a valid passport when entering the country from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. The deadline for the passport requirement for land and sea travelers, June 2009, was finally mandated by Congress as part of the fiscal 2008 omnibus spending bill and signed into law. Whereas the original law had left it to DHS to implement its own deadlines, the Administration's lack of clarity on that score contributed to a surge in demand for passports and a resulting monumental backlog that swamped the State Department's passport offices.
Under the implementation policy, there are two deadlines that travelers should be aware of. The Department of Homeland Security has begun the process of informing travelers about the need for proof of citizenship --- though not necessarily a passport --- for Western Hemisphere travel starting on January 31, 2008. Still, travelers who cannot produce a passport, birth certificate or other proof of citizenship after that date will be warned and instructed on the new regulations. Secondly, DHS has at long last agreed to stick to the Congressionally-established deadline for final implementation of the program. Under this deadline, land and sea travelers will be required to have an actual passport for Western Hemisphere travel by June of 2009.
"This initiative was designed to enhance our national security, but instead, it has become a national headache," Lantos said. "It is essential for us to implement and to publicize a sensible set of policies that will protect our borders while still allowing American citizens freedom of travel throughout the region. After much delay, we have finally convinced the Administration to follow the lead of Congress and do just that."
As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Lantos intervened to help fix the passport problem fast, repeatedly pushing DHS and State Department officials to correct the program's inefficiencies, and demanding answers on how they could have fallen so far behind in meeting the exploding demand for passports. He visited a Passport Agency office in San Francisco and chaired a hearing that holding the responsible State Department authorities to account. At the same time, he has worked to help hundreds of constituents navigate the application process despite the massive backlog, and get their passport applications expedited in time for their travels.
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