NEW ORLEANS — The mail truck is not a welcome sight at the New Orleans Passport Agency.
On a recent Thursday, it dropped off 6,700 new passport applications. That’s considered a good day.
“Tuesday is really our big day,” said Phil Pusateri, a customer service manager at the center. “We usually get about 20,000 to 30,000 applications every Tuesday because they’re still coming in over the weekend.”
Thursday’s mail truck was a small rivulet in a flood of demands for passports this year that has swamped the State Department, prompting long lines outside passport offices, jammed call centers and angry congressmen demanding answers from bureaucrats.
Across the nation, Americans have risked missing long-planned vacations, having wedding plans fouled or being unable to travel overseas to attend to the sudden death of a relative. In the State Department, officers whose job was to monitor major world crises are now poring through passport applications.
The immediate culprit is a three-year-old law called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. It took effect in January, requiring that Americans traveling by air from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean have passports.
Some blame Congress for passing the law in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, rush to better secure U.S. borders, with little thought to how it would be implemented.
But the finger of blame has fallen squarely on the State Department. The department had predicted a surge of 16 million applications from last year’s 12 million, but the number is likely to be nearly 18 million, with no end in sight.
Under fire from Congress and the public, the department has responded with a strategy akin to a war plan, intended in part to safeguard its role in issuing passports — a function it has carried out since 1789.
“The State Department has several top priorities. One is Iraq. Another priority is passports,” said Patrick Kennedy, the director of management policy, at an emergency meeting at the department on July 3.
The meeting was called to tell nearly 400 junior diplomats and would-be diplomats that they'd be spending the summer checking passport applications — rather than working in Washington or preparing for their first overseas assignments.
The current estimate of the redeployment’s cost is $5 million, Kennedy said in an interview.
The department also began temporarily rehiring retired employees with passport experience. And, according to several officials, it has set up a pilot program in which U.S. diplomats in embassies overseas review passport renewal applications.
Meanwhile, the federal government eased the requirement for passports through Sept. 30, allowing air travelers to re-enter the country with government-issued identification and proof that they’ve applied for passports.
Brendan Doherty, who works in the State Department’s Office of War Crimes, was one of about 80 loaners who've moved into French Quarter hotel rooms to help ease the passport crisis.
Doherty, until recently, had been traveling between Washington and eastern Africa, near the Sudan, where conflict has left more than 200,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced. Reviewing passport applications, he said, was “an opportunity to help address something that’s become a very large issue for the government and the American people.”
The reassignments come at a difficult time for the State Department, which diverted some of its best officers for duty in Iraq.
Kennedy acknowledged the cost to work on other foreign-policy issues.
“Absolutely. There is a strain. But I don’t think it’s broken,” he said. People remaining behind in Washington “are picking up the slack.”
Between 375 and 400 employees, mostly junior officers, have been reassigned to passport duty.
They include the entire class of 130 Presidential Management Fellows, high-caliber recruits with graduate degrees who are virtually guaranteed diplomatic careers at the end of their stints; 70 people in another career-entry program; and 170 junior and mid-level foreign service officers.
But those entry-level employees are the ones frequently assigned to staff crisis task forces that address Sudan, Pakistan and other key issues. The presidential fellows, who have little recourse to protest, have been told they'll be working six-day weeks.
In normal times, U.S. citizens could expect to wait six weeks for a passport after applying.
The wait time has crept up to 12 weeks and is now at about 10 weeks for most applicants. Kennedy predicted it would be back down to six weeks by the end of September.
Such predictions have provoked more wrath in Congress, where lawmakers called them wildly optimistic and have been left unimpressed with the administration’s handling of the crisis. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty was raked over the coals at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month.
But Harty did something that seems rare in Washington these days: She took responsibility for the mess. “I accept responsibility for this situation and for correcting it,” she told the lawmakers.
After the new law was passed in 2004, Harty testified, the government hired more than 2,500 passport workers, opened a 17th passport agency in Colorado and expanded others, and christened a new printing facility in Hot Springs, Ark., that can print 10 million passports yearly.
But, she said, “we failed to predict the record-setting, compressed demand” for passports, some of which apparently has been prompted by U.S. government public-service ads about the new rules.
One lawmaker, Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., suggested that Congress should accept some of the blame. “The problem’s with Congress … passing a law and not considering the consequences of it,” he said.
Back at the New Orleans Passport Agency, boxes of applications are stacked six feet high and crammed in a 12th-floor mailroom where workers spend hours each day sorting and sending them on to the next step. On the 13th floor, the scene is similar, with workers sharing desks along walls of applications and records.
With space so tight, local New Orleans employees work a long day shift, and the out-of-town loaners come in at night to continue the process.
Each of the 230 people on staff can process a few hundred passport applications a day. But then the mail truck comes again.
“It's like working all day to push a huge rock up a hill and every night it rolls back down; the next day you just have to push it up again,” said Pusateri, the customer service manager.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed.)
(Strobel reported from Washington. LaFontaine, of the Sun Herald, in Biloxi, Miss., reported from New Orleans.)