Patch news article on Rep. Smith work to help constituents waiting for passports
'Monmouth Co. Family Nearly Misses Vacation Due To Passport Delays'
By Carly Baldwin, Patch Staff
After living through the past seventeen months, all this Millstone Twp. couple wanted to do was take the entire family — their three kids, six grandchildren and various spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. — to Mexico in July. This was a particularly special vacation for Trionfo's grandson, 24, who is battling leukemia.
Except the family reunion — and up to $14,000 in deposits — was nearly lost when multiple family members got caught in the unprecedented passport delays the U.S. State Department is currently experiencing. The U.S. State Department warns Americans should plan to wait five to six months for new passports or renewals. For expedited service, the processing time is 12 weeks.
Both the Monmouth County clerk's office and local Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ 4) say they have been inundated with hundreds of desperate pleas from Monmouth County residents who want to travel abroad, but are met with delays getting their passports in time.
Rep. Smith said his Freehold office has gotten calls for passport help from 587 people, including 325 since the beginning of June.
"The delays have reached crisis proportions," said Monmouth Clerk Christine Hanlon last week. "We've been getting frantic calls."
These are New Jersey residents who seek to travel abroad not just for business trips, school or work opportunities, but also medical emergencies, such as the birth of a new baby or to visit elderly or ill loved ones. Not to mention the countless number of people who want to travel for weddings or funerals.
"As international travel began to return to pre-COVID levels, there was — and continues to be — an explosion of applications from Americans needing their passports," said Smith, who called the delays "undue and unnecessary."
This Monmouth County family's story:
Trionfo's wife owns and operates her own home health aide business, based in Freehold Twp. So the past year of finding employees to work, scheduling them, mask wearing and vaccinating has been particularly exhausting for her, he said.
"With what we've been through in the pandemic, we just wanted to get away," he said. "It was 12 of us in total."
Except eight family members either did not have passports or their passports had expired. Trionfo and his wife had valid passports.
On May 28, all eight went together and filed their passport applications at the County Clerk's office in Freehold.
"We were scheduled to fly out July 3," said Trionfo. "They said it would take 4-6 weeks. We even paid the extra fees to have the process expedited. We thought that was enough time."
By June 28, only one passport had arrived.
"My daughter had been calling the passport office every single day for two weeks straight," he said. "Every day, she would wait two to three hours to speak to a human being and every time she got the human being on the phone, she was told the applications were 'in progress.' We were like, what the h— does 'in progress' mean?"
Trionfo realized the sober reality: Many of his family members would simply not be able to go on the trip.
"I started calling the resort in Cancun and the airline. Because I had only purchased travel insurance for myself and my wife, they said we were going to lose $14,000 in deposits," he said. "My daughter (in her late 40s) did not want to go without her children (her son has cancer). My wife didn't want to go. The stress we were going through was unbelievable. And all this because we just wanted to get away and relax."
On June 29, Trionfo said he called the office of his Congressman, Rep. Smith, having heard he could maybe help.
While neither Smith's office or Trionfo wanted to get into the exact logistics, what resulted was both Smith's staff and passport staff working until 9 p.m. nightly. Smith himself personally called the U.S. State Department and even the Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs, Ian Brownlee, to rush the passport applications through. According to Trionfo, Smith even got a hold of the CEO of Frontier Airlines and got them to push all twelve family members' flights back to July 4.
"It was 9 p.m. Friday and we were told our passports were supposed to come Saturday morning. Well, our flight was at 6:40 a.m. Saturday. So he got the flights pushed back, at no cost, to Sunday," he said. "If we ever needed a miracle worker, it was Smith and his team. From this episode, I'm forever loyal to Mr. Smith and to Frontier Airlines."
Bill currently in Congress to extend passport validity to March 2022
Along with Hudson County Congressman Albio Sires (D), Smith introduced the Passport Emergency Extension Act of 2021 (H.R. 4615). The bill asks the State Department to extend the period of validity for all U.S. passports that expired during the COVID-19 crisis, letting them remain valid until March 31, 2022, similar to the way debt or utility payments were temporarily paused during COVID.
It means that if your passport expired during COVID, the U.S. government would still accept it, should President Biden sign Smith's bill.
Trionfo and all 11 of his family members made it to Cancun. They're back in New Jersey now and still reeling from the bureaucratic nightmare.
The trip was especially poignant because Trionfo wanted to be there with his grandson. He got choked up as he said:
"He spent his 21st birthday in Children's Hospital in Philadelphia getting chemo. Even though all the nurses came in and sang 'Happy Birthday to him,' he wanted no part of it. He said, 'Grandpa, this isn't right. I should be out with my friends right now getting my first drink.' That will always stick in my mind."
"When we got to Cancun we met a couple other people who said they had problems as well," he said. "We were told everyone just flocked to the passport office at once. I was sitting in the pool in Cancun, just looking at everyone beaming, thinking 'I can't believe we made this happen.'"