WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government said on Friday it will temporarily relax new rules requiring passports for U.S. citizens flying to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean because of a huge passport application backlog.
The decision, announced a day after a controversial bill to revamp immigration laws and tighten border security stalled in Congress, will make it easier for thousands of Americans to keep their summer vacation plans but may expose the White House to criticism that it undermines border security.
Through September, U.S. citizens going to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean may travel with government-issued identification and official State Department proof showing they have applied for a passport. The proof of application can be obtained on the http://travel.state.gov Web site.
The decision reflects the government’s inability to keep up with a surge in passport applications following passage of a 2004 law that requires U.S. citizens traveling to those areas to carry passports.
The requirement went into effect on January 23 and increased the number of Americans applying for passports to more than 1.7 million in each of the first three months of the year from about 1 million in December.
Both Congress and the commission that investigated the September 11 attacks urged stronger travel document security to prevent Muslim militants from entering the United States and to reduce passport fraud.
“So, in response to the failing Senate immigration bill, the administration’s reaction is to ignore ANOTHER law that everyone knew was set to take effect for the last two and a half years,” Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who favors tighter border security, said in a statement.
“At a time when we are learning about active terrorist plots on our nation’s soil from the Caribbean we should not be shy about enforcing our laws,” he added, alluding to charges filed against four people accused of planning to blow up fuel pipelines at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty told reporters the government was “trying to strike the same balance that we have been striking for years: balancing the security needs of our nation” with helping citizens travel.
Daniel Griswold, a trade and immigration expert at the conservative Cato Institute think tank, said there was little danger the relaxed rules would erode U.S. border security.
“It is probably the right move under the circumstances with minimal risk for U.S. security,” Griswold said.
The number of U.S. passport applications is expected to rise to nearly 18 million this year from 12.1 million last year and roughly 5 million in 2002, U.S. officials said.
The State Department said there was a backlog of about 500,000 passport applications that have not been dealt with within its 10-week processing target, potentially threatening the summer vacations of thousands of Americans.
The administration may impose the passport requirement on citizens traveling to the same countries by sea and land as early as January 2008, possibly creating another wave of applications late this year.
Harty said the government had “underestimated to a degree” the surge but had hired hundreds of workers to deal with it.
The department said it has about 2,200 workers processing passport applications, up from about 1,400 at the beginning of 2004. It plans to hire 400 more by the end of September and is considering hiring another 400 by the end of the year.
Harty also said a third-party company that initially handles the applications and associated payments was partly to blame for the backlog. The deluge of applications slowed the company’s turnaround time to four or five weeks from 24 hours, although it has since returned to its 24-hour standard.
Additional reporting by John Whitesides and David Morgan