Yona Shemesh, 24, was born in Los Angeles, but he moved to Israel with his family at age 9. In July 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was raging, he booked a ticket to Los Angeles to visit his grandparents in June 2021, knowing that he would have nearly an entire year to renew his American passport, which had long since expired.
Eight months later, he was still trying to get an appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem to do just that.
About 9 million U.S. citizens currently live abroad, and as the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel finally appears, immigration lawyers estimate more than 100,000 can’t get travel documents to return to the United States.
Despite the State Department making headway on a massive backlog of passport applications in the early months of the pandemic, many consulates and embassies abroad, plagued by Covid-19 restrictions and staffing reductions, remain closed for all but emergency services. Travel is restarting, but for American expats who had a baby abroad in the past year or saw their passport expire during the pandemic, elusive appointments for documents are keeping them grounded.
“It’s a real mess,” said Jennifer Minear, an immigration attorney and the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s a giant, multilayered onion of a problem and the reduction of staff as a result of Covid at the consular posts has really thrown the State Department for a loop.”
Michael Wildes, the managing partner of the law firm Wildes & Weinberg, P.C., which specializes in immigration law, estimates that the number of stranded Americans abroad is in the hundreds of thousands.
“Our offices have been inundated,” he said. “We’ve been getting at least 1,200 calls a week on this, which is about 50 percent more than last year. The problem is more robust than people realize, and this isn’t how a 21st-century society should work.”
Ballooning backlog, endless delays
In Israel alone, the U.S. Embassy has a passport backlog of 15,000 applications, according to The Jerusalem Post. American Citizens Abroad, an advocacy organization for U.S. expats, sent an official request to the State Department in October 2020 to prioritize Americans’ access to consular services abroad, “but people are still experiencing delays,” said the organization’s executive director, Marylouise Serrato.
In Mexico, which is believed to have more American expats than any other country, a recent search on the appointment database for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City showed zero available appointments for passport services, even with emergency circumstances (appointments from July onward have not yet been released).
At the U.S. Embassy in London, the availability of appointments for both in-person passport renewals and obtaining an official record of a child’s claim to U.S. citizenship, known as a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, plummeted when Britain went back into lockdown last fall. Amanda Brill, a London-based U.S. immigration attorney, said that since November, appointments have been nonexistent for both. “You can imagine that if you’re a U.S. citizen and you’ve had a baby in the past six months, it is frustrating at best and incredibly stressful for citizens returning to America,” she said.
And as of early April, 75 percent of U.S. consulates abroad remained at least partially closed. The State Department will not release numbers on how many Americans are awaiting passport appointments around the world, but the size of the backlog for interviews for approved U.S. immigration visas — which are also handled by the State Department and have been affected by the same slowdown — gives a sense of the challenge. In January 2020, there was a backlog of 75,000 immigrant visas for those wishing to come to the United States; as of February 2021, the backlog had ballooned to 473,000.
Vicious mix of politics and the pandemic
State Department officials would not offer specifics on wait times for…