Passport Back-Log

Passport offices across the country are still dealing with a huge back-log of people applying for passports. Officials are encouraging everyone to get passports whether or not you plan to go out of the country, you never know when plans might change. What's not likely to change is the new travel requirements for passports. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports.

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Passport officials used to tell people to allow six to eight weeks for a passport to be processed. But then the Western Hemisphere Travel Iniative required all U.S. citizens flying into Canada and Mexico to show a passport when returning home. Houston Passport Agency Regional Director Jacqueline Harley-Bell says that caused a huge number of passport requests that was hard to keep up with.

"Early today would be probably ten to 12 weeks. We're trying to get that down to six weeks we had prior to February."

But Jim Smith applied 14 weeks before his trip and then kept waiting and waiting for his passport. Smith did not pay the fee to speed up the process.

"I guess more people were paying the expediting fee and the regular process were being pushed to the very last minute. That's all I could guess. We kept getting different information every time we called the 800 number. You'd get varying stories of where we were in the process. We'd have one person tell us it's in printing and should be sent out in two days and we'd get back two days later and somebody else say no it's still under review."

Smith didn't get his passport until the day before his trip and only with the intervention of U.S. Senator John Cornyn.

"I think we are in sort of a new world, post 9-11 where there's going to be more and more effort to ensure that fake documents cannot be used to enter the country or verify employment so I think we're going to have to gear up and staff up inorder to deal with it."

Passport officials say before this year, it used to be a rare occurence that a person would use an elected official to help with the process. Now, they say it's almost a regular occurrence. Houston officials are in the process of doubling the number of passport specialists from more than 30 to more than 60.

The federal government has postponed the next phase of the initiative that will require passports for people returning to the U.S. from Canada or Mexico by land or sea. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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