Passport to frustration |

Passport to frustration

KORCULA, Croatia ” Freedom of travel used to be a basic right that we took for granted, like freedom of speech.

This summer, for millions of Americans, my family included, it has become a struggle with an unseen, dysfunctional bureaucracy.

I am sitting on the terrace of a house overlooking the Adriatic Sea, where we like to spend the summer. I am here without my wife and two teenage daughters, who are waiting for their U.S. passports to be renewed. They are hoping to join me next week, but nobody can tell us when they will receive their travel documents.

When they applied 11 weeks ago, they were told they would receive the passports in eight weeks. We have made dozens of pleading telephone calls, sent numerous e-mails and listened to repeated recorded messages (“due to an unexpectedly high call volume, we cannot answer your call right now; please try later”), without any appreciable result.

Back in the days when I was covering the collapse of communism for The Post, we used to take pity on Russians, Poles and East Germans who had applied to travel abroad. They often had to wait until the last moment to know whether they would be granted their passports, which could be withheld on bureaucratic whim or through sheer inefficiency.

There were endless lines for passports and visas. Foreign travel was a privilege rather than a right. Whether you received a passport was frequently determined by whether you had the right connections or were in favor with the regime.

We have not descended to quite that level in the United States.

The passport mess is the result of bureaucratic unpreparedness rather than political repression: The government failed to plan adequately when it made passports mandatory for travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Passport offices around the country have been so swamped by applications that the system has broken down.

Waiting patiently for a reply from the bureaucracy is a recipe for teeth-gnashing frustration.

To get an American passport these days, you have to know which buttons to push, starting with those on your touch-tone phone.

“Press 1 for English; press 2 for Spanish,” begins the recorded message from the State Department’s passport hotline. I pressed 1. A two-minute explanation followed about the extraordinary hard work being undertaken behind the scenes to ensure that Americans can go ahead with their travel plans. Then another instruction. “Press 1 to access our automated appointments system with your nearest passport office; press 2 to speak to a customer service representative.”

Pressing 1 sounds promising but always produces the same result, at least in my experience. “We cannot take your call at this time,” a message says, followed by a click.

Pressing 2 repeatedly eventually yields a real person, though it’s one whose powers of assistance are limited to sending a message pleading your case to some other office. The people who actually issue the passports are unreachable, protected by several layers of unhelpful, obviously harried, customer service representatives.

There appeared to be a ray of hope this month when the administration announced that it would temporarily relax the new passport requirements to the Western Hemisphere. You can go to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean as long as you have government-issued identification and written proof that you have submitted an application for a passport.

But the change has come too late to help travelers to the rest of the world whose passports are snarled in bureaucratic limbo.

While we were attempting to deal with the State Department bureaucracy, my politically savvy mother-in-law figured the system out. She called her representative and made a fuss.

Her passport arrived a few days later.

This week, after missing several travel deadlines, my wife followed her mother’s example and called our representative, Chris Van Hollen. An aide promised to do everything he could to ensure that the rest of the family can join me next week.

It turns out that many members of Congress, including Van Hollen, now have staffers working full time to try to get passports for aggrieved constituents. Van Hollen’s office has already succeeded in “dislodging” more than 300 passport applications.

Unfortunately, Van Hollen’s contacts are with the Washington passport office. My older daughter applied for her passport in Miami, where she goes to college.

If anybody has a connection there, please let me know.

As for me, I am enjoying the sunset dipping over the Adriatic.

My secret: I have an Irish passport.

Michael Dobbs, a former foreign correspondent for The Post, is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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