Criticizes unacceptable delays in the processing of passport requests, urges State Department to open passport agency in Salt Lake City
WASHINGTON— At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing today to examine the State Department’s Consular Affairs services and programs, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) criticized the inability for State to handle passport renewal requests and urged the Administration to open a passport agency in Salt Lake City to accommodate the needs of Utahns. As a rapidly expanding center for global commerce and with thousands of missionaries traveling abroad every year from Salt Lake City, Utahns are in desperate need of expanded consular services. However, Utah is essentially a passport service desert with no feasible options for same-day, in-person services.
Excerpts from Senator Romney’s questioning can be found below:
Senator Romney: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the work that you do. It’s not an easy task by any means. I would note that in this day and age, I think it’s unreasonable to expect Americans to think it’s going to take them months to get a passport, particular a passport renewal, because they can if they apply for a credit card, where they’re going to get thousands of dollars of credit from a bank, they can get the card in days. And yet an American citizen who’s had a passport for 50 years can wait months and months to get a passport. It just doesn’t make sense. I think we may need to adjust our what the requirements are to get a renewal, what that technology is that we use to make that happen.
I would also note that my home state of Utah is, if not the fastest growing state in America, close to the fastest growing state in America. The demand for consular services is enormous, in part because of the commerce there, but also because we have thousands upon thousands, some 50,000 missionaries leaving from Salt Lake City every year. And the Mountain West region, and particularly Salt Lake City is in what I’ll call a “passport service desert”—the nearest passport agencies are, which are required for in-person visits, are some 8 hours away…
We have 200 people right now that are working through my office for emergency help. We have four people in our office that are doing nothing besides emergency passport requests. And the number of concerns we have is an enormous list. And so I would encourage you to fulfill the legal responsibility and the law that was passed last year, asking for the State Department to report on the geographic diversity and accessibility of passport agencies. That’s due in a couple of weeks. And I expect that you’ll be able to perform that as required by law.
And I know that you’re anxious to make that happen. I would also hope that there’s a way to increase staffing, perhaps, I mean, I’d like to build offices with a physical presence, but perhaps at least pilot projects of some kind that allow us to have individuals surged in areas like Salt Lake City…where we can get services for people in the Intermountain West without having to drive as many as eight hours for the needs for in-person [visits]…
Finally, I would ask that if you have data that you look at to see how you’re doing, average length of time for a renewal, average length of time for a first time passport, percentage of people who can’t get their passport within that average, how many are above how long the delays are, if you have debt of that that nature, I would love to see it. I’d request that you provided to this Committee so that we can actually measure how we’re doing. I’m sure you have that. You’re able to look at it, how many applications you received. But can we get granular data from you on how this system is working? I think we desperately need it and hope that you will be able, one to report on the progress towards a regional assessment of our needs, but to information on how well we’re performing.
I know I didn’t get a question in there, but I had a lot I wanted to say, and I think I see you nodding. So, I’m assuming you find those things to be acceptable. Is that right?
The Honorable Rena Bitter: Absolutely. May I respond just very briefly
Romney: You may, but I want to add one more small thing. I won’t ask the audience this, but if my passport says it’s going to expire in six months, I would expect if I was going to leave, let’s say when it’s got three months left, that I could go to Mexico and come back. I think every American I know is shocked to find out that when your passport expires in six months, that you can’t leave, that you can’t leave the country. You have to include on the passport some kind of notice that says you may not leave the country if the passport expires within six months. And it may just be to some countries. But gosh, this is one of the reasons we have this huge backlog with emergency services. I’m sorry.
Bitter: No, I really appreciate it and I appreciate the feedback. And I think people are surprised by this six-month requirement that a lot of countries have. So, it’s something that we include in our outreach. But clearly, it’s really hard to penetrate when people aren’t thinking about it.
Romney: Put a sticker on the passport that says this will not be valid going into many countries if your passport expires in six months!
Bitter: Yeah, we have QR codes that lead to our public information. But you’re right, that’s something very much that should be highlighted in particular because it is really surprising. I also just want to briefly highlight a couple of things and thank you for raising the issue of geographic diversity. It’s something we really monitor a lot. We collect a lot of data on it. There are, you know—I can throw out statistics at you which will be unsatisfying—but we think that the best way for us to be able to serve the American public is through modernizing our systems and being able to surge our hiring. It’s really only about 5% of Americans who need access to emergency services for passports.
And we do have procedures in place, and we work very hard, including with all of your staffs, for which we are enormously grateful, to make sure that we are aware of those cases and they’re drawn to our attention. And sir, if there are cases in Salt Lake City that you need us to be aware of, we would really be grateful if you could set us up for success and let us know.
The one other thing I want to say, and it’s really true. Hiring—we have increased our staff 10% this year and we have more in the pipeline. You know, these are national security, every passport’s a national security decision, and bringing folks on in these positions—hiring, training, clearing, and making sure that they are suitable to have this really challenging job with a great deal of responsibility does take time. And it’s something that we’re working at very, very closely. And we’re grateful, really grateful, for the support of Congress in expanding our spending authorities and allowing us to be able to move funding more flexibly to be able to continue that hiring. So, I want to end with thanks not just for the feedback, but also for all of the support.
Chairman Bob Menendez: And just two kind of notes—fifty is the present backlog. We have a continuous process of closing them successfully, many. So, if I were to say, “How many do we get over the course of a year?” Probably over 1,000. But 15%, though, of the American people who may need emergency services—is that what you said, 15%?
Bitter: I’m sorry, sir. It was 5%.
Menendez: 5%. I’m sorry. 5%, I was calculating, is about 15 million people. That’s still a lot of people.
Senator Romney’s legislation to help bring a passport agency to Salt Lake City was signed into law in December as part of the FY 2023 NDAA. In April, Senator Romney led the Utah Congressional Delegation in sending a letter to Secretary of State Blinken raising concerns over extreme passport processing delays and requesting that the State Department opens a passport agency in Salt Lake City—”Perhaps most frustrating, any in-person services for Utahns requires them to travel long distances out of state…We renew our request that you open a passport agency in Salt Lake City to give Mountain West residents an in-person option for passport services. Not only would this be consistent with your statutory obligations, but it would provide significant relief to residents of several states.” Full text of the letter can be found here.