Welcome home?

Welcome Home?

Interview By: Reuvain Borchardt

Source: Hamodia

Date: June 2, 2021

The U.S. State Department recently announced that it will allow American citizens who are abroad and have an expired passport to return to the U.S. due to the massive COVID-related backlog in processing passport renewals. Hamodia spoke with Amudim CEO Zvi Gluck, who has been heavily involved in assisting people with travel-related issues during COVID, about his lobbying effort on this matter.

Tell us about the lobbying regarding expired passports.

I have been working on this issue for months. Back in February, I had a Zoom call with staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Rabbi Aaron Kotler of BMG, who has been working with me on this issue. He arranged that call through Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs that committee. We’ve spoken with Menendez, with the Foreign Relations Committee, with the State Department, and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

The issue involves U.S. citizens who are outside the country and want to get back home. In normal times, if someone is outside the United States and his passport is expiring, he or she would make an appointment at the U.S. Consulate. Typical wait time is about two months. If someone needs to get back urgently, the airline can contacts the CBP, which can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to allow that person to enter the United States with the expired passport.

But now, because of COVID, staffing levels at consulates around the world have been way down, so it takes much longer to get an appointment.

How long is the typical wait time now?

It can be six months or more.

During COVID, New York State extended expired drivers’ licenses by a certain amount of time; same thing with the Health Department’s paramedic licenses.

So, on these calls with federal officials, I recommended they do the same thing — extending expired passports by a certain period of time.

We had all these people contacting us who were American citizens living in Israel at the time, and they wanted to come back home to America, or maybe visit their family in America for Pesach. We had this list of names that kept growing, and which we kept forwarding to the Foreign Relations Committee and CBP. For a while, every time we sent a list to an agency, they would say, “Don’t send this to us; it’s up to the other agency.”

This was a frustrating cycle.

So after months of lobbying, why did the U.S. government finally agree to extend the passport expiration dates? Most countries have ended their lockdowns to varying degrees; presumably, the U.S. consulates have increased their staffing levels by now.

The backlog of appointments for passport renewals finally got so bad that it simply couldn’t handle it anymore.

In Israel alone, there are 15,000 Americans on line to get their passports renewed. About 2,500 of them have reached out to Amudim.

So what are the effects of the new rule?

This new rule is an amazing step in the right direction and very much appreciated. But there are still many issues that have to be resolved.

The rule only allows people whose passports expired at some point in 2020 or 2021, and are currently outside the U.S., to come back. But they can’t leave again until they get their passport renewed.
Also, there are American couples living in Israel who had babies recently and now want to come back to America. The babies never got passports or Consular Reports of Birth Abroad. So this rule doesn’t help them; they have to wait six months, seven months, eight months … now for an appointment at the consulate.

And the new rule extends the expired passports only to the end of this year. The backlog is so big right now that there is no way they’ll be caught up by the end of the year. And the backlog is not only in consulates; passport agencies in the U.S. are also way behind.

As your lobbying continues, what rule changes are you pushing for to resolve these issues?

I’ve asked that any U.S. citizen born recently outside the U.S. should be allowed to enter the country. These couples should be allowed to bring their babies back to the U.S. and not have to wait months until they can get an appointment at the consulate before they can travel to America.

And if they want to require that the babies have passports, they should do the interview with the parents over Zoom, and not make them come down to the consulate. That will also speed things up and help move through the backlog more quickly.
I am also asking the government to speed the process for renewal of passports. There is a particular issue with people who got their passport when they were 15 or younger; when they renew their passport, they need to make a personal appearance; they can’t just mail it in. But now, with the COVID shutdown and backlog, it’s difficult to make a personal appearance. They need to come up with a better system for these people.

The bottom line is that no U.S. citizen should ever be denied the right to enter the United States. ■