Officials see no decline in passport applications

Article Launched: 06/23/2007 09:14:08 PM MDT

By Louie Gilot / El Paso Times

While Americans now have a six-month respite from having to present passports at border crossings, the number of El Pasoans interested in getting passports has hardly dwindled since the announcement last week.

Saturday, at a passport fair organized by the U.S. Postal Service at the post office on Boeing Drive, about 500 people stood in line for hours to file their applications. The first person to line up arrived at 2 a.m., officials said.

“It’s like going to a rock concert. You go two days ahead of time and sleep on the floor,” said Postmaster Felix Guerra.

Those standing on line were in no mood to joke around, however. Mostly, they were tired and a little ticked off.

“We knew we were going to have to wait but we didn’t know it was going to be so long,” said Gloria Sarabia, a homemaker living on the East Side.

El Paso postal officials said they handled about 75 passport applications an hour today.

Sarabia said she waited more than three hours in line for a passport to allow her to travel to Mexico with her brother.

Passports, or a receipt for a passport application are now required to fly in and out of the United States.

Last week, Bush administration officials announced they will delay for at least six months the rule that Americans have to present passports when entering the United States at a land border crossing, such as El Paso’s international bridges. Instead, these travelers can show a birth certificate and a driver’s license. The Department of Homeland Security is also working on an alternative to a passport — called the PASS card — specifically for border residents that would cost only half the $100 filing fee for a regular passport.

Nothing will change for permanent residents who still have to show their green card when coming into the United States.

The waiting time for passports has soared from around six weeks to more than three months nationally, delaying or ruining the travel plans of thousands of Americans.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said that part of the problem was that in 2005 Hurricane Katrina reduced the capabilities of the agency’s New Orleans passport office. She also said the agency had not expected so many Americans to actually obey the new law.

And, she said, many people were applying for passports with no specific travel plans in mind, clogging the system for those with travel deadlines.

Jocelyn Hashimoto, a student living on the West Side, wanted to apply for a passport for her 3-month-old daughter for future international trips.

“My mother is in Japan and we want to be able to visit her,” Hashimoto said.

Hashimoto had an appointment to file her application Friday but the post office canceled it. She came to the post office twice today, pushing her stroller, hoping the line would get shorter as the day grew longer.

El Paso postal officials said that they were looking to train more clerks for passport duties. Passport applications can be filed any day of the work week at the main post office with or without prior appointment, Guerra said. The U.S. Postal Service organizes monthly passport fairs on Saturdays to help those who can’t get away from work during the week.

Saturday, hundreds of passports applicants shuffled among cubicles after postal officials moved the line inside the post office when temperatures got to be too hot.

“It was something else,” said Mike Barela, a post office employee who volunteered to work today.

Sarabia, her daughter and granddaughter, were among the office space invaders.

“We emptied their vending machines. We feel sorry for the employees coming to work Monday morning and there’s nothing left in their vending machines,” she said.

Louie Gilot may be reached at lgilot@elpasotimes.com, 546-6131.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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