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Sorry About Your Passport, America

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Does this RFID chip make my ass look fat? Image via.

Leaving the country is going to take a lot longer than you thought.

When it was finally my friend Molly’s turn to step up to the bulletproof glass window at the San Francisco US Passport Agency to get her passport, she was sunburned, frightened, hungry and nearly hysterical. The girl behind the glass looked, to Molly, to be about nineteen years old and in a similar mental and emotional state. Molly apologized before beginning, saying, “I just want you to know I’m really frustrated with my government right now. I’m not mad at you.” The passport office girl blurted out, “I’m not even supposed to be doing this job. I don’t belong here, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m a temp. I really understand why they have bulletproof glass here.” The girl paused to add, “I hate it here.”

While AP reports from July 23 state that Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, who is in charge of passports for U.S. citizens, has accepted “full blame” for the delays in US citizens getting their passports, it does little to ease the situation. The delays are due almost exclusively to the The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), mandated by Congress in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. WHTI requirements for air travel took effect on January 23, 2007. Requiring citizens to now need passports to travel to places like Mexico and the addition of RFID chips to US passports in so-called efforts to thwart terrorists — along with budget problems, and a passport redesign — has turned a routine six-week application process into a Kafka-esque nightmare for hundreds of thousands of citizens. And, a boon for price-gouging passport fulfillment sites.

Molly (who requested a pseudonym for this piece) purchased a ticket to Europe with two other artists in hopes of catching the ten-year occurrence of the Venice Biennale and Germany’s Documenta happening in the same summer. Only after, did she realize that because her passport expired within six months, she was required by law to have a new passport for travel. Thus began her descent into present-day US passport hell.

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Her travel date was July 24, and since it typically takes six weeks to obtain a US passport, Molly decided to expedite her application. On June 18, she learned from the US Post Office that she had two options for expedition: to wait until their first available appointment on June 27, or wait until 14 days before her flight, and call the automated emergency passport system.

Molly went back to her NOPA flat and looked for online, non-US government expedition options. One highly visible online passport rush service, Molly read, would hand-deliver her passport in three weeks for $95, plus the $150 government fees. She called, only to discover that they were in fact charging $300 (not $95), with no guarantee, at all.

Since her travel date was just five weeks away, Molly took it to the judge. Or rather, she went to San Francisco City Hall on June 19, and handed the City Hall Office of the Treasurer her application, passport photos, birth certificate, and $150 (passport fee, clerk fee, expedition fee). The clerk told Molly her passport was guaranteed to arrive at her house on the 10th or 11th of July, and no later than the 12th.

By July 14th, Molly was in a total state of panic. Her trip was ten days away, and she had no passport, no birth certificate — and possibly no recourse. She went online to the US Department of State Passport page, and followed directions to send an email query. Still concerned, she called the phone number on her passport application receipt (also found on the website: National Passport Information Center).

After an hour and a half on hold (and having the system disconnect her once “due to high call volume”), Molly finally reached a human voice. The woman Molly talked to apologized, said that they’d “put a rush on it”, that Molly would get her passport “by the 20th”. Feeling unsure even after they’d said goodbye, Molly decided to call the passport office back the next day to follow up.

Once again, after being booted from the automated system’s “high call volume” disconnection function, Molly stayed on the line and was connected to another agent. This time, a man who told Molly he was looking at her account and that in fact, no rush had been put on her order. He chastised Molly for calling back “too soon”, and that if she asked for too many rushes, “they’ll ignore it.” He told her to call back in 72 hours and she countered, “But it’ll be the weekend. Your offices are closed.”

The next day was Friday, and her flight left the following Wednesday. She called the passport hotline, again. She got hung up on, again. An hour and a half later, she connected with a representative in New Jersey who explained to Molly that he could see she’d called twice, but there was no rush put on her passport. He explained that the two people she’d spoken with before were at the temporary passport agency, so didn’t actually have the ability to put rushes on passports.

This was not the first time in her life that Molly, a part-time nanny, needed to summon her nanny superpowers of patience for autistic children. She politely asked if her passport could be sent to her local San Francisco passport offices, and she could just go pick it up. He explained that he thought her passport “might be in New Hampshire”, though he thought it was unlikely to arrive on time. But, pretending he hadn’t heard her previous request to send it to San Francisco, offered, “Maybe the best thing is to put it at will call in San Francisco.” He told her to make an appointment for pickup, and hung up.

Molly spent the entire weekend — when not at her other full-time Ferry Building Marketplace job — trying to make an appointment using the emergency hotline. Every time she called on Saturday, she was disconnected due to “high call volume”. She finally got past the high volume disconnection recording and made it into the automated waiting system after 9pm on Sunday night — which repeats appointment options, telling her the next open appointment in San Francisco was August 6. Following the recorded suggestion, she kept trying over the next few hours to see if there was a cancellation — only to watch the date slip further into the future.

Furious after over six hours on the phone, Molly did that thing we all joke about in times of bureaucratic disasters — she wrote an angry letter to her elected representative. She politely, furiously, pecked out an email to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi about how the situation was “untenable”, and she did not “feel represented”.

Monday afternoon, she felt like email just wasn’t satisfying, so she went back to Pelosi’s website, and called her.

Molly got the desk secretary, who transferred her to Pelosi Senior Staff Member Harriet Ishimoto. Ishimoto apologized, and with Molly on the phone, emailed her a form to fill out for emergency appointment processing, and personally called the San Francisco office for Molly’s appointment. She told Molly she believed the passport application had been lost, and that Molly should get new photos and bring everything to the SF office, and get there at least an hour before it opened to get in line.

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If you’ve driven by Hawthorne and Folsom, you’ve seen those lines. Molly got there at 9:30 am Tuesday (a little late). Her flight was to leave the next day. The line was huge; V-shaped, on two sides of the block. But that was not the only line. She got in the first line, and met a man in front of her who was going to France the next day, and had applied for his US passport fourteen weeks ago. He told her she might be in the wrong line; Molly went to the nearest security guard and said, I have a note from Nacy Pelosi — he rudely told her to get in the other line, the “emergency line”. The emergency line looked to be around 150 people long, 80-100 feet down the block, and 2-3 people deep.

In what Molly called the “skip the line, line”, groups were being called into the building ten people at a time. There was no shade, no food, and importantly, no bathrooms. Ahead of Molly in the line, a young woman waiting to go to China because her father had died — she left to find a restroom, and returned to discover her group had been let in and security guards would not let her re-join the group. She went back to wait another three hours in line; where all told, people waited four hours in the sun. Elderly, disabled, everyone on the sidewalk.

As it turned out, Molly was waiting in a line — to wait in line. Once inside, through security, she could smell the bathrooms and see that there were not enough chairs. She was directed to another line to wait for a number; then another line to wait for her number to be called. In this line, she met a sweet Hungarian couple and their five-month-old son, who they wanted to take to Hungary to meet his grandparents for the first time. They had applied for his passport when he was a month old; the passport office had lost the baby’s original birth certificate and application. It was quite difficult, they explained, because for a baby both parents need to be present for application, and they lost work every time they came to wait in line.

Watching the “estimated wait” sign say “28 minutes” for over an hour, Molly decided to take a photo. Only to have a security guard walk over, stand by her, and look at her with his hand on his gun.

As Molly stood there incredulously, the lights flickered — and then went out.

The entire room wailed a pained, collective, “Noooooo…..”

The power went back on. Without the PA system. The computers all had to be rebooted.

It was than that Molly called me. Laughing hysterically. “We’re all kind of laughing now. But we’re excited to be inside! Stockholm syndrome!”

The power went out again, and again. Computers rebooted again, and again. The third time, the PA system played an automated recording telling everyone not to panic.

Behind the bulletproof glass, no one could hear the clerks call numbers. Their mouths would move, some tried to call numbers through the little slot at the bottom. Still, the clerks would only call the numbers three times before moving to the next. Some resorted to writing the numbers on Post-Its and pressing the paper to the glass. In the front, a disabled woman’s young son took up a job; when a number came up, he’d yell it, and the window number to the room. People smiled, complimented. Molly said the mother gave the boy “thumbs-up” every time.

When Molly’s number was called the second time at 4pm (the first time is for “processing”), she met the girl who hated her unwanted temp job. After hearing about the girl’s position at the passport office, the girl told Molly they’d found her passport, vaguely, “on a desk”. And that they’d try and make her passport today, but there were no guarantees. At that, it was time for their dinner break, and the office was closing, but Molly was given a note for return at six. The girl told her, to come back with all her paperwork, but to be prompt at six or she wouldn’t get back in.

The guards were intimidating; Molly spent the afternoon watching them tell people waiting in line to “watch their mouths” and “not get smart”. But on her way out, Molly checked with a security guard about returning, who told her to be back “no later than 5:15″ to get in line to enter the building. She had 30 minutes. Walking to get food and water, Molly took a new friend — a Russian woman, who told her, “Today is my first day as citizen. I have to go back home for family emergency, and normally I would use Russian passport, but today I am an American.”

Upon return at 5:15, she was about 50th in line to re-enter the office — only to be let in an hour later. By 6:35, passport in hand, Molly called me for a ride home. Instead of gas, I’m demanding a postcard.

And the new passports? Let’s just say that even after a glass of wine each, we really think someone should fire that designer. Oh — and I might just wait until Molly gets back to tell her there is no passport office in New Hampshire.

Posted by on July 27, 2007.

Categories: News

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