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Passport problems now land at airport

A government waiver to ease a backlog has a side effect: Some bound for Mexico needed to show a birth certificate.

June 13, 2007|Peter Pae and Jane Engle | Times Staff Writers

Just when it seemed the passport logjam was starting to ease, passengers faced another obstacle Tuesday: Some airlines refused to let them board planes because they didn't have birth certificates.

In yet another embarrassment for the State Department, a temporary measure enacted Friday to reduce a huge backlog of passports is now leading to more unexpected aggravation.

"It's a real bummer," said Alex Alvarado, a 10-year-old Needles resident who was blocked from boarding a plane to Mexico City for a summer soccer camp because he didn't have a birth certificate -- something that Mexico requires if you don't have a passport.

In a move to lessen passport backlogs nationwide last week, the U.S. government told travelers that they could visit Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean this summer with only a government-issued photo ID and a receipt showing that they had applied for a passport.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Passports: An information box in Section A on Wednesday accompanying an article on passport problems said Canada and Mexico required travelers to present proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate, to enter. In practice, people driving into these countries are often asked to show only a driver's license or a photo ID. The box said Canada would not accept a certified copy of a birth certificate. A certified copy is acceptable.

But when Alvarado and his parents got to the ticket counter, they were turned away because Mexico requires proof of U.S. citizenship with a passport, a birth certificate or certified copy of it, or a naturalization document.

Alvarado was one of about a dozen passengers trying to board a Mexicana Airlines flight Tuesday at Los Angeles International Airport on the misconception that the requirements announced Friday by the State Department were the only things needed to fly.

The State Department had waived passport requirements in hopes of speeding up the passport application process for all other international travel. The effort to unclog the logjam is expected to take the entire summer.

For Alvarado there was one more hitch: The State Department has his birth certificate along with the passport application that had yet to be processed even though his paperwork had been sent in three months ago.

"I just don't know what to say or what to do," said Alvarado's father, Luis, who drove four hours from the San Bernardino County town to send his son off to a "dream" soccer camp.

Mexicana officials said that Mexico's entry requirement was clearly noted in the ticket information but that some passengers may have been confused by last Friday's announcement of the U.S. passport waiver, which applies only to leaving and entering the U.S. Mexicana spokeswoman Theresa Bravo said Tuesday that the airline had not heard any complaints from U.S. travelers being turned away at LAX because of the mix-up.

As the Alvarados mulled over what they would do next, there was one piece of good news that came out of Washington on Tuesday. Travelers who paid an extra $60 to get their U.S. passports expedited but still had to wait for them beyond the time period that they were promised can get a refund from the government.

The decision on the refund was disclosed in a State Department document received by some members of Congress. It was part of an attempt to deal with an unprecedented backlog that has led many in the U.S. to either delay or cancel summer trips.

The agency is expected to process 18 million passports this year, up 50% from last year, and the wait time has grown to 12 weeks or more from six weeks a year earlier.

The delays largely have stemmed from a new rule that requires U.S. citizens to have passports in order to fly to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda. The government last week announced that it would suspend the rule through Sept. 30, providing that travelers to those destinations bring a receipt showing they have applied for a passport.

But in its haste to announce the waiver, the passport agency neglected to advise travelers that each country has its own requirements for entry.

"It's created a lot of frustration among travelers," said Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines. The carrier has had to turn away passengers, though the exact number was not immediately clear Tuesday. "It's unfortunate because in order to protect the passengers we had to deny them boarding."

Many travelers to the destinations in the passport waiver have been left in a Catch-22.

The problem is that "a lot of folks" turned in the original or a certified copy of their birth certificate when they applied for a passport, and now "it's stuck somewhere in Houston," one of the regional passport agencies, said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), who has been one of the more vocal critics of the passport delays.

The White House defended its decision to enact the temporary waiver.

"My sense is that it will assist the vast majority of individuals who might have applied for a passport," said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. customs operations.

A State Department official said the agency was aware that other nations have entry requirements that may be different from those in the U.S., adding that it was gathering information from the countries included in the waiver as to what those current requirements are.

The official said the department would post that information on the website as it became available.

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