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Unprecedented passport application delays stifle travelers

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Estella Valdez is seen at her home in Chicago on July 22, 2021.

Estella Valdez is seen at her home in Chicago on July 22, 2021. Valdez has an international trip to Aruba in August and is the only person in her bridal party who still needs a passport. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — As a pandemic newlywed, all Estella Valdez wants to do is join her new husband, family and friends for the Aruba honeymoon they rescheduled for August.

But Valdez, 46, can’t relax poolside at a luxury resort, let alone cross a tarmac, until the passport she sent for renewal in April comes back. Of the 12 people traveling, Valdez is the only one stuck without a passport — and is one of the millions nationwide whose new passport applications or renewals are caught in limbo by increasingly lengthy processing delays.

Travelers trying to get their first passports or renew the ones they have should plan on wait times of up to six months, the U.S. Department of State announced. Before the pandemic, the State Department could process non-expedited passport renewals by mail in just six to eight weeks.

Even after paying the expedited fee, some travelers are reporting longer wait times. And those seeking both expedited and non-expedited passports say they are getting no information about the status of their applications.

“It’s still saying the same thing, processing, and they haven’t even cashed my original check,” Valdez said. All she knows is that her passport is processing in the New Hampshire passport office, and she can’t get through to speak to anyone at the office after being left on hold for hours.

State senators and local representatives can sometimes help expedite passport applications, but with the current backlogs, even their capacity to help is stretched thin.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville issued a statement urging the Bureau of Consular Affairs to take immediate action on passport processing delays. She reports that more than 120 constituents have reached out to her office for help with passports since May, “with more cases coming in every week.”

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U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García of Chicago also released a statement to the Tribune, advising travelers to secure passports before booking airline tickets.

Last week, the State Department temporarily suspended an online booking system used for urgent appointments because of falsified appointment bookings. Now thousands of desperate people with international flights are turning to social media to seek support and answers.

Adding to the confusion is the lack of standardization among the 26 State Department passport agencies. Most seem to be strictly by appointment right now. A few are accepting walk-in appointments, and desperate travelers are waiting in line for hours at those agencies in hopes of getting passports.

Urgent international travel appointments now must be scheduled two weeks in advance for a date up to three days before travel, and applicants must be prepared to show proof of travel to passport office staff.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs said it is ramping up the return of staff to its offices in 17 cities in an effort to speed the processing of passport applications.

“It takes four to five times longer to assist a customer at a counter than in the back room looking at the documentation, so what we’re doing to ensure that we get through all of the applications as quickly as possible is to continue to focus on those that are pending that people have applied for in the past several months,” Rachel Arndt, the deputy assistant secretary for passport services, said in a special briefing on July 14.

Karen Kimmey, Valdez’s travel agent, says she has never seen delays like this in her career. Kimmey estimates that 2% of her clientele who travel internationally are struggling with passport issues.

“How many times do they have to keep postponing their honeymoon?” Kimmey said. “They did because of the pandemic, now they have to do it because the government won’t give them their passport. … It’s sad, just sad.”

Kimmey said the passport delays only add to the burden on travel agents, who are already busy helping clients get refunds or credits for vacations canceled because of the pandemic.

Auburn Gresham resident Shermee Randolph, 25, sent her passport in for renewal in March and received it in June, well within the expected wait times for passports at that point.

But “it just kind of felt like I didn’t get as much update or information about my passport, compared to my previous experience,” Randolph said. “Like, I would go on the website to get an update and see what was happening, and it would just never be any information up there for me.”

She ended up canceling a trip to Mexico with friends partly because of her fear that her passport wouldn’t come in time.

Both Valdez and Randolph say they now recognize the importance of travel insurance. Valdez and her husband may be out $3,700 if her passport doesn’t come in time and she can’t make the trip.

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