Many desperate Americans living in Israel say they and their families are trapped in the country, unable to plan long-anticipated trips to visit relatives in the United States.
That’s because, due to a massive COVID-19 backlog and remaining restrictions, it is virtually impossible to obtain an appointment at the U.S. Embassy to renew expired passports for Americans – children and adults – whose last passport was issued when they were a minor, or to register a newborn child with American parents as a U.S. citizen and obtain a first passport.
Even more frustrated than those U.S. citizens? Israelis with close family in the United States who have had their U.S. visa renewal interviews canceled multiple times as the embassy prioritizes U.S. citizens for the limited number of precious appointments.
At the eye of the storm is U.S. Consul General Andrew Miller, an affable character wearing a bright orange shirt and leopard-print mask as he sits for an interview in his Tel Aviv office.
Miller acknowledges the fury swirling around him, even using less than diplomatic language to describe a situation in which there is a backlog of thousands of passport renewals and visa applications, which will take many months to chip away at.
“This sucks for us too,” he asserts. “We prided ourselves pre-COVID on our ability to get passports in a hurry. In an emergency, we could get one in less than an hour when there was desperate need. We know how difficult it’s been for people, we want to help them, and we’re busting down fences to help them. We do feel their pain, and we’ll do whatever we can to alleviate it.”
Despite the formulated responses to the thousands of weekly emails flowing into the embassy, Miller says it’s important for people to know that he and his staff are not heartless bureaucrats.
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They are often brought to tears as they plow through more than a thousand emails each week, he says, while they try to determine who is worthy of an emergency appointment in order to attend a funeral, sit by the deathbed of a parent, or obtain life-saving medical treatment they cannot obtain in Israel.
The current crisis was created during eight to nine months of the pandemic in which virtually no passports were issued or renewed, or births registered of babies born to U.S. citizens and eligible for U.S. citizenship.
The situation is hitting its peak as the backlog encounters the looming summer holidays and an avalanche of U.S. immigrant families who want to reunite with their now-vaccinated elderly parents and other family members in America.
Adult passport renewals can be completed by mail, a procedure that is now a requirement unless the situation is an emergency. But State Department rules dictate that children applying for their first-time passport or renewals, as well as those transitioning to adult status, must show up in person. In-person appointments are also required for a Consular Report of Birth Abroad.
Miller says his ability to increase the number of appointments in both the Jerusalem embassy and Tel Aviv branch has been “hamstrung” by the Israeli government’s “very severe” limitations of 20 people in a single room. Appeals to Israel’s foreign and health ministries to ease the restrictions have gotten no response, he adds.
Mitch Schneider, a U.S. immigrant who lives in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, is low on sympathy for Miller and his staff.
Schneider’s father passed away in 2019, leaving his elderly mother alone and isolated for a year. After she was involved in a car accident, he tried every way possible to get an appointment to renew his daughter’s passport in order to bring her to her grandmother. He went as far as to appeal to his mother’s local senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez – all to no avail.
“The embassy had no heart and said there’s nothing they could do. There was zero compassion,” he says. “I’m shocked that America closed their services to U.S. citizens who pay their taxes. They essentially closed the border to my American daughter without any regard,” Schneider said, speaking from New Jersey where he ultimately decided to travel alone to visit his mother.
Heather Stone, chairwoman of Democrats Abroad Israel, says she has been inundated with such stories. “Everybody wants to go to America this summer to see their family,” she says. “The embassy is opening slots up in dribs and drabs, and they aren’t open for the full week. They don’t have appointments, and when they do open them up, everything is instantly gone.”
Stone notes that “if you look online at other U.S. embassies – in Greece, Sweden, Switzerland, France – they have dates going into June and July and they aren’t fully booked. So what’s the deal? People are anxious and they’re frustrated. And people are suffering economic hardship as well. Because they can’t register their children’s birth in the United States, they can’t count them for tax credit and aren’t eligible for the coronavirus stimulus checks,” she says.
Some Americans in Israel are so fed up, she adds, that they are exploring the option of traveling to European countries to renew their children’s passports in a U.S. embassy there, and then continuing on to the United States.
There are problems in other countries too – the story of expat Americans “stuck” overseas recently hit the front page of The New York Times – but the problem is the most severe in Israel, a fact that earned it top billing in the Times story.
Why? Miller asserts that it is estimated that one in seven Israelis also holds an American passport, giving it by far the highest number of expat U.S. citizens per capita in the world.
The embassy’s official estimated backlog is 15,000 passport applicants, a number obtained by subtracting the number of passports issued during the pandemic from that of the usual number issued in that time frame.
“It’s not like there are actually 15,000 applicants recorded here,” Miller says.
To illustrate the effect of the pandemic and the embassy’s efforts to catch up despite the restrictions, he points to a graph. “In September 2019, before the pandemic, we processed 2,700 passports,” he relays. “In March 2020, we only did 120 and in April 2020 we did just 45. Then by July we were up to 500 and in September we got to 900. By December we were up to 1,500. Now, in April 2021, we’ve done 3,000 passports – more than we did in all of COVID time.”
The embassy explored out-of-the-box solutions such as setting up waiting room tents, but rejected them as unfeasible. And despite the embassy’s extraterritorial status, flouting local Health Ministry restrictions wasn’t an option. “We’re good neighbors and we obey the guidelines that are set out by the ministry,” Miller says.
His bottom line for anxious American families as summer draws near?
“I would say keep trying, because we’re increasing our capacity as we can. We’re up by a significant percentage every month. We’re making passports our 100-percent top priority. We’ve given up half of the Israeli visa waiting room to be especially for the new [U.S.] babies and those we have to see in person – it’s our top mission. Will everyone who wants to, get to see their grandmother in the States this summer? I certainly hope so.”
Miller’s “Keep trying” message isn’t encouraging for Marne Rochester, a Jerusalem resident who has been working daily to get an appointment for her daughter.
“I check about 15 to 20 times a day,” she says. “During this time, no appointments for July were added. Two weeks ago, I saw an appointment added but by the time I entered ‘Name’ and ‘Date of birth,’ the appointment was already taken. It’s a system that’s all based on luck, timing. Someone could get it on their first try when there are people trying for months.”
Bottom of the list
The situation is even more daunting for non-U.S. citizens attempting to get a visitor visa. The pressure on the U.S. Citizens Services side triggered a sweeping cancellation of all visa interviews between May 3 and June 9. On the embassy’s Hebrew-language Facebook page, visa applicants responded to the move with fury. Some had appointments canceled three or four times over the past year and report that the embassy is now scheduling visa interview appointments for as late as September 2022 (16 months away).
Miller doesn’t hide the fact that visas are a lower priority.
“Our role as an embassy is to assist Americans and, right now, providing passport service is the best way we can do it. So we do it with the sacrifice of Israelis who might want to visit their grandma in the United States in the summer.”
Still, he adds, they are also trying to make progress on the visa front. Before the pandemic, the embassy granted 19,000 visas a month – which dropped to just 35 during the hardest lockdowns. Now, he says, they are back up to 8,000 a month.
“The priority visas are for those contributing to fighting COVID in the States, our working visas, our student visas. We’re also busting down a lot of fences to get visas for camp counselors at Jewish camps this summer, because we know that’s an important program for our bilateral relationship and our cultural ties.”
The one topic on which Miller appears to be on the brink of losing his diplomatic cool is that of grifters making a profit by illegally obtaining appointment slots and selling them to the highest bidder or, worse, making promises and taking money from hopeful applicants and not coming through.
He is frustrated that the Times article highlighted an example of someone who successfully bought an appointment slot for $450 and says he “wishes they’d interviewed all of the other people” who paid money to a broker and got nothing in return.
The embassy has been doing what it can to fight the phenomenon, he says.
“We’ve been notifying the police and we’ve had some of the people busted for it. We’ve been able to have some of these organizations who are doing it shut down. We do have some ways of telling when an appointment is forwarded to us by way of a scammer, but not always,” he says. “Anything can be commodified, and appointments are a commodity – just like toilet paper was in March 2020. When there’s a market for a commodity, people will do unscrupulous things.”
Miller stresses that the shell companies promising VIP treatment at the embassy in exchange for cash are lying: “There’s no person who calls me up and says, ‘Hey Andy, it’s Shlomo, I’ve got 15 more for you.’”
In the midst of all the frustration and anger being directed his way, the consul general insists that he is still trying to look on the bright side. The unrelenting tide of applications is only happening because Israel has turned the corner on COVID and people can travel again. “In some ways, it’s a good problem to have,” he says. “We’re the leading edge of a global phenomenon.”
Catching up on the paperwork needed to make that happen “is like the virus itself,” he reflects. “It’s going to be a long and slow recovery. There’s good news ahead, but it’s going to be a long-term project to chip away at this year of lost work.”