US Embassy in Israel has 15,000 passport backlog due to COVID rules

Even in a normal year, the embassy in Israel is one of the busiest places in the world for US passports and reports of birth. Then, the coronavirus pandemic came along.

US Embassy Jerusalem (photo credit: US EMBASSY IN JERUSALEM)
US Embassy Jerusalem
(photo credit: US EMBASSY IN JERUSALEM)
Stephanie Tenenbaum Daon, an olah from New Jersey, has not seen her parents or grandmother in almost two years because of COVID-19 restrictions. She was hoping to take her children to the US to see them in July or August.
Daon realized her six-year-old daughter’s US passport had expired and sought to make the necessary in-person appointment to renew it. But like thousands of other American citizens living in Israel, she could not get one because they were all taken.
“I started trying to get an appointment about four months ago,” Daon said. “There were no open appointments at all. They’re booked through June, and July appointments aren’t open yet. When they open, I’m sure they will be booked almost instantaneously by people who were lucky enough to be checking at that moment.”
Lindsay Geier Shapiro, an immigrant from Florida, gave birth to a baby girl less than two months ago. Like many olim, she had the “incredibly overwhelming” experience of giving birth during a pandemic, when she was unable to have her parents or siblings in Israel. She could only get an appointment for a consular report of birth and passport application for her daughter in June, two weeks before she has tickets for her family to fly to the US to see her and her husband’s families.
“It’s crazy that it’s taking so long,” Shapiro said. “When my first daughter was born in 2018, we got an appointment within a few weeks of her birth. I just don’t understand why there aren’t appointments. I understand that there is a backlog because of COVID. If that’s the case, then why don’t they extend the hours or availability of staff?”
Daon and Shapiro are just two of an estimated backlog of some 15,000 US citizens in Israel currently seeking to renew their passports or get new ones, along with about 1,000 undocumented babies, according to US Consul-General Andrew T. Miller.
He is responsible for all US consular services, including passports, reports of birth, visas and green cards in the US Embassy in Jerusalem and the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv.

 Consul General Andrew T. Miler (Photo Credit: US EMBASSY) Consul General Andrew T. Miler (Photo Credit: US EMBASSY)
Continued COVID-19 restrictions have sharply limited the embassy’s ability to provide services, Miller told The Jerusalem Post Monday.
Even in a normal year, the embassy in Israel is one of the busiest places in the world for US passports and reports of birth, he said.
“Sometimes…Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are themselves No. 1 and No. 2 in the world when it comes to citizenship documents,” Miller said. “We think that there are more Americans living in Israel than anywhere else in the world except Mexico. Our ballpark estimate is that one out of every seven Israelis is a dual national. The concentration of Americans in this country is beyond comparison.”
Then, the coronavirus pandemic came along, mostly shutting down consular services for about 10 months. Last April, they completely shuttered offices, opening up only for individual emergency travel, such as for life-saving medical procedures or to visit a dying relative.
“We basically lost a year’s worth of work,” Miller said.
In a normal year, the embassy processes 17,000 US passports; in 2020, they fell 15,000 short of that.
“We’re trying to chip away at that mountain,” Miller said.
Last April, the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem offices issued 45 passports, but last month, they issued 2,000, he said.
US consular services cannot work at full force due to the Health Ministry’s “Purple Tag” guidelines, which do not allow more than 20 people in a room. While no staff members lost their jobs, they cannot all work as they normally would to provide Israeli-Americans with their passports and Israelis with visas to visit the US.
In addition, with the high level of vaccinated Israeli adults and large numbers of people who want to take their children to the US for the summer, there is now a surge of citizens seeking appointments, Miller said.
US consular services have yet to open up summer appointments in anticipation of changes in COVID restrictions in the near future that would require “strategic planning,” he said.
When the Health Ministry’s guidelines are loosened, with the next step expected to be allowing 50 people in a room, Miller said he plans to add more appointments “right away.”
He expressed hope that the passport backlog will be solved within three months.
To respond to the massive demand, American citizens’ services have been prioritized over Israelis seeking to go to the US. The visa section’s hours have been reduced by half and replaced with appointments for consular reports of birth for newborn US citizens.
To free up appointments for minors, whose passport renewals must be done in person, adults have been required to renew their passports by mail as of six months ago.
The processing time for passports that are mailed in is not longer than for those submitted in person, Miller said. He encouraged Post readers with US citizenship to check their passports and mail them in for renewal early so that they do not find out they need a last-minute appointment later.
The many requests for emergency help have been “incredibly stressful for our staff… I had staff come to me in tears because of our inability to provide services,” Miller said.
“It pains all of us that because of COVID it is hard to provide all the extraordinary and regular services,” he added.
One of the consular staff’s jobs is to make judgments about what is an emergency and what is not. They have to dedicate resources to confirming emergencies due to attempts to defraud the embassy.
“We have to choose between, ‘I really want to go to the States,’ versus those who really need to because of a sick relative,” Miller said, giving the example of someone who wants to see their grandmother who they could not visit because of COVID-19, as opposed to someone whose grandmother is on her deathbed.
In the latter case, Miller said the US Consulate is able to work fast to help. For example, he expressed pride that in the last year, a woman with late-stage cancer needed a visa to go to the US for treatment, and she received it within 20 minutes.
Miller warned against scammers who charge fees and promise to get people appointments for consular services.
“We do not work with any expediters,” he said. “There is no protekzia [connections] for getting an appointment. Do not pay for an appointment.”
Those who manage to get an appointment for their children might notice that there are no longer cartoons playing on the TV screen in the waiting room. That is because the consular budget is based on the fees paid for their services, and fewer people getting services means a lower budget and no money to pay for cable TV, as well as more important equipment.
“We are under great financial strain because we are a fee-funded organization,” Miller said. “The ability for the State Department to plus-up a place like this is pretty limited.”