State Department reverses course on emergency passports


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ST. THOMAS - The U.S. State Department has agreed to let Virgin Islanders continue - on an interim basis - to obtain emergency passports from the Miami Passport Agency by way of the V.I. delegate to Congress.

Earlier this month, the delegate and the Lt. Governor's Passport Office staff had been informed that as of July 11, any Virgin Islands resident needing an emergency or expedited passport would need to go to the San Juan Passport Agency to apply in person.

Recognizing this as a hardship for the territory's residents, Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, Lt. Governor Gregory Francis, and Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone all lobbied the State Department to reverse the decision.

Late last week, the U.S. Department of State's Hill Liaison office Managing Director of Passport Issuance Operations Florence Fultz sent an email to Christensen.

"The Office of Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen, USVI Delegate to Congress, may continue the longstanding practice of referring life/death emergency passport cases via express mail to the Miami Passport Agency, working with USVI passport application acceptance facilities designated to accept and execute applications on behalf of the U.S. Department of State," Fultz said.

Christensen said since June 2010, her office has been working with the Lt. Governor's Office Passport Division and the Miami Passport Agency to get emergency passports for Virgin Islanders faced with life or death situations. She said the office typically handled about five a month, and the documents were always sent using FedEx overnight shipping.

The closest U.S. Passport Agency used to be in Miami, but in January, an agency office opened in San Juan.

While the territory does have a U.S. Passport Office, which is under the purview of the Lt. Governor's Office, the local passport office can only process regular applications and expedited passport services as well. Only one of the nation's 28 U.S. Passport Agencies can process emergency passports, and the applicant must make an appointment and appear at the agency in person, according to the State Department's website.

According to the delegate, officials at the San Juan Passport Agency said mailing passport applications and accompanying documentation directly to a U.S. Passport Agency, "represents a vulnerability in the passport application process," and directed residents to travel to the San Juan Passport Agency to apply for, or renew, their U.S. Passport.

With the State Department's reversal, the delegate's office can assist people needing an emergency passport in a life or death situation, however anyone wanting faster service but not in an emergency situation still has the option of going to the San Juan Passport Agency in person.

Like all passport agencies, the San Juan Passport Agency makes every effort to enable customers to get passports in time for their travel, which often means same day service, Fultz stated.

"We continue to encourage U.S. citizens residing in the Virgin Islands to make sure their U.S. passports are valid and if they do not have a U.S. passport and there is a possibility they may have to travel outside of the U.S. to visit a gravely ill relative or attend a funeral, to apply for a passport now to avoid running into an emergency situation," Christensen said in a written statement.

Francis also issued a statement last week saying he was glad the State Department reversed its decision.

"This policy was just plain wrong and made no sense," he said.

"Our local passport policies are now restored, and the Virgin Islands will continue to process all passport applications in the Territory, as we have been doing for years. There is no longer a requirement to travel to Puerto Rico to obtain an emergency passport. This is indeed very good news for the Territory," he said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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