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Long wait for passports is a ticket to pure misery

Thousands descend on Federal Building at the height of travel season due to new regulations.

June 23, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Outside a will-call booth at the Federal Building in Westwood on Friday afternoon, Semida Crihalmean giggled and posed for a photo for her friend Andreea Boitor while tightly clutching her passport.

Around the two, roughly 500 people milled about or sat in a line stretching halfway around the building.

The lucky ones had umbrellas or folding chairs; others used envelopes to shield themselves from the sun.

To passersby, the scene might have looked like the queue for a popular movie, or maybe just some kind of tourist haven.

But it was more like tourist hell for Southern California residents preparing for summer vacations or other trips abroad. State Department officials have long expected a surge in passport applications given the new Department of Homeland Security rules, but the scope of the recent logjam -- which coincided with peak tourism season -- caught officials nationwide off guard.

Crihalmean and Boitor were celebrating the end of a wait that had started at 5:30 a.m. for Crihalmean's passport to be processed and delivered by the Los Angeles Passport Agency.

Hundreds of others were less fortunate, many lingering for hours over several days to try to pick up their passports.

For the past month, the Federal Building plaza been filled to overflowing with desperate travelers hoping to apply for or pick up their passports, grumbling to their neighbors in line about the wait. Some are filing their initial applications and others are hoping to pick up documents that should have been mailed long ago; all are planning to travel within the next two weeks.

Caught in the crunch of an estimated 17.5 million Americans seeking passports this year -- due in part to new regulations requiring the documents for those flying to and from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean -- the State Department has struggled to accommodate the applications flooding offices across the country.

When the waiting time between application and receipt of a passport went from six weeks to more than three months, crowds began congregating each day outside the Federal Building -- 2,150 people on Friday, more than 3,300 two days before, officials said.

The passport office is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., although it often is 7 p.m. or later before all the paperwork is processed for the day. Officials declined to comment on the long lines and frustrated customers.

And as those in the lines griped to one another about their troubles, a similar experience began to emerge. Everyone complained about fast-approaching travel dates, exhaustingly long lines and the chaotic setup at the passport office.

Some had to skip work to bide their time in line -- Ed Youngman took five days off this week from his managing job at Slade Gordon seafood company -- while others worried about post offices that they said lost their passports.

"I kept looking in my mailbox day in and day out, and nothing was there, I started panicking," said 77-year-old Barbara Lewis, who drove nearly two hours from Rancho Mirage.

"When I finally went to the post office, the postmaster admitted he had lost it. So now, at the last minute, I've had to come in and had to stay overnight. It's just not fair, it's like playing Russian roulette."

Lewis, who said her Tuesday ticket to Rome is nonrefundable, said she was especially peeved because she applied for her passport in February.

Despite applying in March and paying the $60 fee for it to be expedited, Crihalmean, of Anaheim, began worrying several weeks ago that her passport wouldn't arrive in time for her flight to Romania early next week.

So she navigated jammed phone lines at 4 a.m. for two weeks to book an appointment at the office on Wilshire Boulevard -- others resorted to calling their congressional representatives -- and then endured people trying to cut in line in front of her and Boitor on Friday.

"Some people were obnoxious, but it was because they were misinformed about where to go," Boitor said. "They were all frustrated."

Lupe Martin and Sam Nasser were especially irritated. Neither man had an appointment and both said they had been given contradictory stories throughout the day by passport officials.

While people with appointments to pick up their passports said the process went relatively quickly -- five or six hours -- those without were shuttled back and forth from the crowd at the building entrance to the lines stretching from the pickup windows.

"I've been coming here the last three days," said Martin, who was trying to pick up his daughter's passport before she leaves for Mexico on Tuesday. "We're willing to pay, whatever it takes, but the officers here are not very cooperative. They just tell you to go away for no specific reason."

Many in the lines complained about the lack of signs or directions in the building's plaza, describing the confused glut of people that had clogged the main entrance early Friday as well as the few who waited in line for hours but were sent to the back again and again because their passports still were not ready.

The constant pilgrimages to the Federal Building have taken their toll on Nasser's 6-year-old son, Samir, who needs to fly to Bangladesh early Monday to visit his ailing grandmother.

Nasser even came equipped Friday with a note from Samir's doctor stating that hours in line would aggravate Samir's heart condition, but to no avail, he said: "The officers don't listen to our pain."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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