WASHINGTON - The Bush administration last week suspended some of its new, post-Sept. 11 requirements for traveling abroad, hoping to placate Congress and irate summer travelers whose vacations have been thwarted by delays in processing their passports.
The proposal would temporarily lift a requirement that U.S. passports be used for citizens flying to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
The suspension should allow the State Department to catch up with a massive surge in applications that has overwhelmed passport-processing centers since the rule took effect this year. The resulting backlog has caused up to three-month delays for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of Americans.
Until the end of September, travelers will be allowed to fly without a passport if they present a State Department receipt, showing they had applied for a passport, and government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license.
Those without passports would receive additional security scrutiny, which could include extra questioning or bag checks.
Homeland Security signed off on the proposal after consultations with the State Department, the White House and members of Congress, who have been deluged with calls from angry constituents seeking help with their passports.
Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., whose district lies near the Canadian border, said White House officials had been on Capitol Hill trying to work out a compromise amid what he called a “turf war” between State and Homeland Security.
Reynolds faulted “arrogant” officials for failing to get the system working properly, and said he was worried about even more headaches next year when passports will be required to drive into Canada or Mexico.
Lawmakers had been pushing for a change for weeks.
“To say people must have a passport to travel and not give people a passport is right up there in the stupid column,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who urged the State Department to lift the rule last month.
The application surge is the result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that since January has required U.S. citizens to use passports when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air. It is part of a broader package of immigration rules enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Between March and May, the department issued more than 4.5 million passports. It has millions more to process, according to consular affairs officials.
Wilson’s office took more than 500 calls from frustrated travelers seeking help in May alone. The problem has since spread from border states to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado and elsewhere.