Passport Crunch Nixes Travel Plans for Expat U.S. Citizens

By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 30, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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A passport crisis is forcing hundreds of American citizens living in Israel to cancel travel plans to the United States. Since the summer, the American consulate in Jerusalem and the American embassy in Tel Aviv have ceased providing services to all visitors except those who have managed to schedule an appointment, resulting in an average wait of six months.

Hundreds of expatriates attempting to apply for a new passport or to renew an expired one have been unable to do so, effectively barring them from the United States because of immigration regulations requiring that all Americans citizens, including those holding dual citizenship, use an American passport for entry and exit from the country.

Among the worst hit by the bureaucratic backup are parents who do not yet have passports for their young children.

“The earliest appointment I can find to get a passport for my baby daughter is July, which means I may well miss my sister’s wedding in the summer,” said Anne Hertzberg, a Washington native who now lives in Jerusalem.

For Hertzberg’s sister, Miriam Quintal, such a prospect is doubly painful. “I’ve already been waiting months to meet my baby niece, and it would be heartbreaking if both she and my sister were not present at one of the most momentous occasions in my life,” said Quintal, who lives in Washington.

A spokeswoman for the consulate in Jerusalem blamed the passport crisis on teething troubles with the new system and on the large number of Americans living in Israel and the Palestinian territories, estimated to be roughly 200,000. She denied that the consulate and embassy are short-staffed, but admitted that extra help has been requested from Washington.

The consulate spokeswoman also claimed that delays have resulted in part from the racketeering of appointment slots.

“People are making bogus appointments and selling them,” the spokeswoman said, though she did not provide evidence of appointment slots for sale. “Unscrupulous people are taking advantage of the system.”

The only system for transferring appointments appears to be an e-mail list called the “Consulate Gemach,” set up in response to the passport crisis. The list allows people who no longer need their slot, in most cases because they have given up and canceled their trip, to offer it to others for free.

Expatriates in Israel, for their part, say the problem is the result of a backfired attempt by the consulate and embassy to increase efficiency in processing passport applications.

“With this new system of accepting people only by appointment, they have tried to make things easier by saying that everyone needs an appointment, but this is a disaster,” said Debby Millgram, president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. “Before this change, you could go along with a book, queue up and resign yourself that while you would have a long day, you would get to see someone. Now, people have no access to their own representatives here in Israel.”

Further compounding the problem is the requirement that appointments be booked over the Internet, which is seen as disenfranchising two major constituents of the expatriate community — the elderly and the ultra-Orthodox.

“A lot of our older members are not used to computers and do not know how to use the Internet, so they are unable to book themselves an appointment,” Millgram said.

Many ultra-Orthodox, meanwhile, eschew the Internet because of rabbinic prohibitions against surfing the Web. Peysach Freedman does not allow the Internet at his home in Jerusalem, and had to rely on a loophole in the prohibition allowing for Internet surfing outside the home in order to access the embassy’s Web site.

Freedman’s sixth child is due this week, and he wanted to schedule an appointment so that his relatives back in Baltimore can soon meet the family’s newest addition.

“The earliest appointment was July 22,” Freedman said. “It’s a disgrace. Much as I love Israel, I am extremely unhappy that I effectively can’t leave here until then…. I am liable for taxes to the U.S., which I pay, and vote in elections. I am entitled to better than this.”

The timing of the crisis means that even for those fortunate enough to secure the earliest appointment slots, it will already be too late to secure passports in time for the busiest travel periods, Passover and the summer. Shara Ben-Tzion, a native of New York who lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, is one of many who have come to realize they will not be able to celebrate the Seder with family in the United States.

“There were no spots,” Ben-Tzion said. “I have a new baby, and there are people in my family who can’t travel to see him, including my 97-year-old grandmother and my sister who has cancer. They keep saying, ‘When are we going to see the baby?’ and I just don’t know. You don’t put things off when someone is 97.”

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