MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Good morning, everybody. Thank you for joining us for a briefing that I think is going to be of great interest to all of you and many Americans, especially as we are now into summer. And this briefing is on the status of U.S. passport services. Just a reminder that today’s call is on the record, but all of the contents of the call are embargoed until the end.
Passport processing is a critical function that the Department of State provides to the American people, and while our services have been reduced as a result of COVID-19, I’m happy to note that we have begun a phased resumption of passport processing throughout the country. Here with me today to offer a complete update on passport services is our Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Carl Risch. Carl will deliver some opening remarks and then we will of course be happy to take your questions. As a reminder, you dial 1 and then 0 to get into the queue. Today’s briefing, as I said, is on the record. A reminder that the content of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. Carl.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Great, thank you, Morgan. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining me here today to discuss the State Department’s plan for resuming passport operations. The U.S. Department of State is committed to serving American travelers. In recent months, as you know, we have undertaken an historic effort to assist Americans overseas and helped more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens return home. Another core aspect of our work is the issuance of U.S. passports. We take great pride in our customer service and in our work to safeguard national security.
The COVID-19 pandemic posed an unprecedented challenge to our operations. To keep our employees and customers safe, and to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we significantly reduced our passport operations in March, leaving only enough staff at our passport agencies to process cases involving life or death emergencies. We also made sure that members of the armed forces and health care workers could receive their passports quickly to carry out their crucial missions. We know that many other Americans have been waiting patiently for their own passports.
On June 3rd, all agencies and centers’ mission critical management teams began reporting to the office full time. On June 8th, all passport services personnel that are not high risk were added to the mission critical teams and requested to report beginning June 11th, which was yesterday. Our expanded mission critical teams have begun processing the applications on hand. This is a crucial service for individuals and businesses alike, and one I know many of you count on to do the work that you do.
In line with the State Department’s broader Diplomacy Strong framework, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has put into action our plan to return to normal passport operations. This is a phased approach to gradually bring back – bring more staff into our agencies to tackle the applications we’ve received since March and to return as quickly as possible to the processing standards the American people have come to expect. Issuing passports is a critical component of the department’s mission, and our personnel have therefore been deemed mission critical.
As of yesterday, 11 passport agencies and centers around the country have entered phase one of our resumption plan. Each facility is gradually ramping up operations based on local conditions and CDC guidelines. As more agencies have additional staff returning across the country, we are aggressively increasing our processing capability and doing everything we can to return to normal as quickly as possible.
Many of our customers have asked why we haven’t been able to continue normal passport operations during the pandemic. The answer is that the passport process does not lend itself so easily to telework. Passport specialists must take added steps to safeguard Americans’ private information. They must ensure the important documents, like birth certificates, remain secure at all times. This means only reviewing them in secure government facilities. The U.S. passport itself is a secure document and it must be printed, manufactured in a secure government facility to protect national security.
Now, as many states are safely reopening and it is safe and prudent for us to follow suit, more and more of our employees are returning to our passport facilities and will immediately work to finalize pending applications. The health and safety of our workforce and our customers will always remain the top priority. We have secured personal protective equipment for our employees. We are ensuring social distancing, and as a result, we will be able to balance our commitment to facilitating Americans’ travel abroad with our duty to safeguard our employees and customers.
We issue over 18 million passports every year, and in recent years we’ve risen to meet record numbers of applications. Our dedicated team of professionals, spread across our 29 passport agencies and centers and thousands of partner facilities, they work tirelessly to support the travel needs of the American people.
Before I conclude, I’d like to address a common question that has come in regarding the number of applications pending processing. We currently have over one and a half million applications on hand, and I want to put this into perspective: That total of just over 1.7 million represents only a slight increase over what we would process in a month under normal circumstances. We are used to scaling up our operations to meet increased demand. As of yesterday, close to half of the passport workforce has now returned to our facilities, and we have also deployed more than 150 staff from other parts of our organization to support the critical task at hand. While there are a number of factors that lie outside of our control – the virus itself being one of them – we anticipate that with current staffing levels, we can process several hundred thousand applications per week. Assuming current trends hold, this capacity will only continue to grow.
Although this nationwide disruption in business as usual is unprecedented, our dedication to issuing Americans passports as quickly and securely as possible is not. Our workforce is professional, capable, and more than up to the task of getting back to normal in short order. And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Carl. Let’s see. First in the queue is Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. If the normal passport application process takes, as far as I understand, about four to six weeks, how long can Americans who would apply for a passport now expect their passport to take before they got it back?
And then second, are you offering testing and contact tracing for employees who are coming back to the office? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: On the first question, where we’re going to start the processing will be the first-in/first-out approach, where the passport applications that were received, I think the oldest was probably going back to February, and the amount that has been accumulated since then will start to be worked. As I mentioned, we are hoping, given our staffing and our projections based on where we are right now, that may increase over time. That’ll be about 200,000 per week.
But again, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty out there. That could increase, however, as we go into June and into July. But as that capacity increases, it’s going to take approximately six to eight weeks to really start addressing those passport applications, which is good news. So hundreds of thousands of Americans who applied for a passport in February and March will be receiving those passports every week starting now.
But as for someone who just applied now, those in the first – first-in/first-out approach will have to wait a minimum, we project, about eight weeks before they would be able to get a passport for routine purposes. But we continue and have always since the beginning provided life-or-death emergency service at our agencies for someone who absolutely needs to travel due to a life-or-death emergency. We are able to address those – those requests.
As for your second part of your question about contact tracing for our passport employees, we are approaching this from a health and safety standpoint and have from the beginning and continue to do so. And we’ll be communicating with our employees about their health and about their safety and making sure that they are working in a safe environment. And if there comes a need to address something like that, we’ll be working with our professionals here at the State Department and with local authorities to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide a safe and healthy working environment for our employees.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Nick. Okay, let’s see. Tacey Rychter, New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi. Why wasn’t there a contingency plan in place to safely and securely process such essential documents as passports in such a scenario as this? Are there plans to develop any kind of telework system, especially if the pandemic continues to present a safety issue for many more months?
And my second question is: What is the plan for Americans who are overseas and need to get passports renewed at missions where consular services have been closed for routine services?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Well, thank you for your questions.
A passport application must be adjudicated in our facilities to protect customers’ personally identifiable information and ensure the integrity of the application process. We maintain the highest standards of security and privacy protection for our customers and must secure sensitive documents, as I mentioned, like birth certificates and naturalization certificates, in those offices.
And most importantly, when considering things like telework, we must also physically print and manufacture and ship out passport books and cards back to customers from those facilities. We are preparing to have, as I mentioned, more employees return to our agencies and centers in phase, so we hope to be able to ramp that up. But unfortunately, a lot of aspects to the production of something like a passport, it’s just not conducive with telework.
But through this process and resuming our operations, we – and now that we have personal protective equipment and practices in place to have a safe and healthy work environment, we hope to be, as times goes on, and hopefully we won’t have to revisit this situation again in the near future, but if we do, we believe that we are in a much better position now to – going forward to weather such storms should they come back.
As for overseas, similar to the passport processing domestically, because those passports are generally manufactured in the United States, Americans overseas will face similar delays in getting a full validity passport for travel. But if – again, if an American faces an emergency overseas, needs to return to the United States, needs the support of our consular sections overseas, we are available to provide those emergency services to Americans. In fact, as you know, we helped evacuate close to 100,000 Americans back to the United States at the height of the pandemic and the travel disruptions of a few months ago and continue to do so. So we are there for American citizens overseas and we will continue to be there.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Nick Schifrin, PBS.
QUESTION: Hey there, Carl. Thanks so much for doing this.
The first, a clarification. Just trying to make sure I understand the numbers. So 1.7 million applications on hand that have come in since February you haven’t been able to deal with. So will it take about two months to catch up with those, and does that mean that anything submitted today will be two months plus the three to four weeks that most people wait?
And then if I could just have you expand on this conversation a little bit to include immigrant visas, green cards. I know there’s been some delays in terms of processing payments, processing that. Can you give us the status of those applications and how quickly you can catch up on those? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: I think your characterization of the wait times for people applying now is not incorrect. I would say that because of – because we’re dealing with a tremendous amount of uncertainty, it’s hard to make a service commitment. But again, assuming our staffing and our production is not further disrupted and actually only improves as the summer goes on, I do believe that it will take from six to eight weeks minimum to work through most of the work that has accumulated since late February or so, and then the additional work that continues to come in we’ll be able to much more rapidly address that thereafter.
As for the next six to eight weeks, it’ll be a lot – a lot of our focus will be on those – the work in progress that had accumulated, which, as I mentioned, is not an atypical amount. It is – it does represent the work on hand that often is present in passport – in the passport network at any given time. It’s – to speak generally, since the pandemic began for passport – and the demand decreased substantially, as you can imagine. So our ability to now address what has accumulated – which, compared to that normal three-month period that we’re talking about, February, March, and April – really, four months going into May, is – has actually been fairly modest. But I don’t think that was an unfair characterization.
As for visa processing and generally overseas, that’s something we continue to review, looking at it post by post, and looking at local conditions and other concerns there, which adds a completely different level of analysis to providing services to the public. And I’m certain that over the next weeks and months there’ll be a lot more information coming out on where that’s all going.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Sorry, just let me get my queue back up here. Where did it go? Sorry, Ruben, who’s up next? I seem to have lost the queue.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Katrina Manson.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much. Again, a little bit of a clarification, but I’d really appreciate it. For your consular services abroad that are open to foreigners, can you just give me a little bit of guidance on how you see that opening up? And on your very helpful figure that you normally process 18 million passports a year, how would we put that into context with your reference to 1.7 million applications pending? Do you expect to, by the end of this year, still have processed 18 million and make everything up, or do you expect there to be a – only a 1.7 million up to that shortfall? Because I guess you’re making up quite a bit more than the pro rata rate if you do that. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Sure. So as I mentioned, we currently have about 1.7 million passport applications on hand. And as mentioned, this represents only a slight increase over the normal volume of passports we process in an average month. As mentioned – as you mentioned, it’s usually about 18 million a year. And if you divide that out, it’s about 1.5 million a month. We’re committed to working as hard as we can to process these applications as quickly as possible, and again, on a first-in, first-out basis.
Look, to clarify your question about the overseas services, I think I may have already answered that question.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: (Inaudible) just to go back and ask her to clarify it. I’m sorry, Morgan. (Laughter.)
MS ORTAGUS: That’s okay. So – go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: So I just wanted to make sure I understand the question.
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, we – they’re muted once they’re on, so – once they finish. So let’s go to Carol Morello next, The Washington Post.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Okay.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Actually, most of my questions have been asked and answered, but I also just want to just take it half a step further. So it’s my understanding – make sure I’m understanding this correctly – it’s my understanding that in the overseas bureaus, in most of them, you are still operating only on an emergency basis.
And I also wanted – I’m not sure we got an answer on that question – are you developing a plan so that if this pandemic goes on, as many experts expect it will and gets worse, are you going to have to shut down again? Or will you be able to maintain a higher level of processing if that happens? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: Yeah, thank you, Carol. So, yeah, overseas, we are continuing to provide and focus on emergency services for Americans, trying to focus on that aspect of the service at this point. But as things develop, we want to try to, as rapidly and as safely as possible, return to normal services, both American citizen services as well as visa services. That is our hope and we continue to move in that direction.
But as for plans for the future of the passport, indeed we are developing a plan as – again, dealing with a tremendously just unpredictable environment around the pandemic will allow us, we hope, to still develop a strategy that we continue to work on in looking at what could happen in the future if we see a need to start removing employees from the workplace again. But we hope that that won’t have to happen and we – and we’re looking at ways to be more resilient if we are faced with these challenges in the future.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. We have – excuse me if I mispronounce your name – Jory Heckman, Federal News Network.
QUESTION: Pronounced it correctly. You had mentioned 11 facilities reopening under this phase one. Is there – is it too soon to give a timeline of when the remaining facilities will reopen? Is that a phase two or a phase three question?
And my second question: You had mentioned about half of the workforce that are handling passports are returning in this phase one. Is there any sense of how much of the workforce is in these high-risk categories as identified by the CDC – over 65, chronic illness, things of that nature?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: I would say it is too soon to predict how the phases will move forward going into other phase one agencies as well as moving into phase two and phase three for our reopening strategy. But we’re hopeful that it will – that we’ll be making progress around the country and we’ll be able to move into those phases. It is viewed regularly, daily, through the data and the statistics and looking at where we are. So it’s something that we are reviewing constantly so that we can provide as many services as soon as possible to the American people.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. We’re going to go last question, Jennifer Hansler, CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Has there been any consideration to staggering the types of visa applications that might be processed if things start to come back online, prioritizing certain types of visas over others? And then has there been any discussion on a timeline for lifting the Level 4 global travel advisory? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RISCH: So on the Level 4, we’re – again, that’s something that is of constant review, working in the interagency, looking at the data, relying heavily on guidance from public health professionals particularly and looking at that determination, and also looking at travel disruptions and other things that affect travel and the need to maintain that type of advice to the American people.
As for visa services, once they begin to resume around the world, prioritization would be something that is generally looked at on a post-by-post basis because different types of visa categories and types of travel differ around the world depending on where we are or where we’re – what we’re talking about. And a lot of those decisions on how to prioritize and bring in the public in a safe and orderly way will be made primarily at a post level.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Well, Carl, unless you have any final words, we’re going to end it there. Thank you, everybody, for dialing in.