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New rules waived on passports

Travelers to Mexico and elsewhere complained loudly about delays.

June 08, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Amid growing public outcry, the White House is expected to waive new travel restrictions this summer to ease an embarrassing passport backlog that is disrupting vacation plans nationwide.

Under a plan approved by the Bush administration late Thursday and to be announced today, a new requirement for U.S. passports will be temporarily dropped for air travel to and from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, officials say.

Although the requirement affected travel to only a few countries, the added pressure on the State Department had delayed processing of all passports and had enraged international travelers.

To regain entry to the U.S. through Sept. 30, these Western Hemisphere travelers would have to provide only photo identification such as a driver's license and proof that a passport application has been submitted.

Word of the expected announcement was hailed by travelers who have been waiting for passports, some as long as 14 weeks.

"That's great news," said Doug Le, an Irvine resident who has waited 12 weeks for his two sons' passports for a trip to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas next week. "I was about to write to my congressman. I'm glad they're doing something."

But it was little consolation for Jana Beilstein, who said Thursday that she was forced to cancel a cruise because she had not received her passport in time.

The former Trabuco Hills resident who now lives in Spokane, Wash., had applied March 9 -- shortly after her husband gave her the $4,000 cruise as their 25th wedding anniversary present. Although she was told that it had been mailed a week ago, she had not received the passport.

"It's too little, too late," Beilstein said as her voice cracked during a telephone interview Thursday. "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."

California, where 1.1 million people traveled to Mexico last year, has been especially hard hit. Some of the longest lines for last-minute passports have been at the Federal Building in Westwood.

All week, lines have been forming in Westwood by 4 a.m. as would-be travelers await the passport office's 7 a.m. opening.

"This is crazy," said Andre Horga, who drove all night from Phoenix to the Los Angeles office on Tuesday to get a passport for his flight to Romania the following day. "It's been very frustrating."

Details of the measure are to be unveiled this morning as the peak summer travel season begins in earnest in the next few weeks.

The backlog of passport applications has led to thousands of complaints, extended delays, and some travelers canceling or altering trips.

The passport agency has not been able to keep up with the deluge of applications since the new rule went into effect in January.

The average wait times had grown from 10 weeks in March to 12 weeks last month, or twice as long as the average wait of six weeks last year.

Officials said that from March to May, the agency issued more than 4.5 million passports, a 60% increase over the same period in 2006. But they said millions more were waiting to be processed.

Members of Congress have been deluged by complaints from frustrated travelers who had not received their passports and didn't know where to turn. The lawmakers who like to specialize in constituent services have also had little success.

"This is the relief my constituents needed," said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), who has been one of the more vocal critics of the delays. Wilson said she had requests for help from 500 travelers last month, up from only a few in May 2006.

"Basically they have acknowledged that there is a problem and it will take the rest of the summer to work this out," she said.

By waiving passports for travel to destinations in the Western Hemisphere, the State Department would have wiggle room to process passport applications for overseas travel to such destinations as France or China, Wilson said.

"Someone who goes to France could be put in front of the line because you would need a passport to enter that country," she said.

In recent weeks, lines of hundreds of hopeful travelers have snaked around passport offices nationwide seeking long overdue passports to leave the U.S.

Many of them had a flight within a day or two and couldn't get through to anyone at the State Department either by phone or e-mail even though they had applied at least 12 weeks ago.

Some who did get through were told that their passport had been express-mailed to them a week earlier, only to be told later that it actually hadn't left the building and was unlikely to get to them in time.

On Thursday, the Senate responded to the complaints by proposing an amendment that would allow for alternative forms of identification and require the secretary of State to verify to Congress that the department had hired enough people to resolve the problem.

The "proof of application" form is expected to be made available on the State Department's passport website.

The forms are intended only to ease the summer passport crunch, and the waiver expires Sept. 30. Travelers would also have to undergo more stringent security and baggage checks, according to a senior Homeland Security official.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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