The passport office’s never-ending demands for documentation

“More, more, I’m still not satisfied.” This lyric from a Tom Lehrer song describes Paul Little’s state of mind when he was caught in the middle between his employer and a bureaucrat with unceasing demands for more and more documentation that Little couldn’t provide.

Little’s employer required him to travel overseas. But his local passport office nearly cost him his job. It made demands for documentation that Little couldn’t meet, and nobody was willing to help him out — until he brought his case to our forum.

As readers of our website are aware, a significant percentage of our cases involve government agencies. But Little’s case was a particularly difficult one, both for Little himself and for our forum advocates, many of whom suggested that its resolution was outside the scope of what our forum or our advocacy team could help him with.

Little was asked to travel to China for his job at the last minute, so he went to the Los Angeles passport office in person to apply for his first passport. He brought with him the “long form” of his birth certificate from the California Department of Public Health’s Office of Vital Records (containing the raised seal of the State of California), his driver’s license, his social security card, his baptismal certificate, a letter from his employer describing Little’s need to travel, his travel itinerary and a smile. He went through the application process, paid for the passport and left, thinking nothing further about it.

But by the end of the next day, he wasn’t smiling anymore. Here’s Little:

I received a call at 12:45 on the day I was to pick up the passport from a lady in the Programs department at the Passport Office. She wanted me to answer tons of questions about where I grew up, went to school, worked, where my mother was born, father was born, etc.

I answered them the best I could as both my parents are deceased. I gave her the information I know. She asked me to come and bring whatever documents I could like school records and parents’ death certificates, which they would review. I went to the office and gave them my father’s death certificate, a letter from my school district showing my attendance … and my high school yearbook. She had me fill out a huge questionnaire showing every address I ever lived at, schools attended, hospital visits and questions I couldn’t answer like where my mother lived the year before, year of and year after my birth, what her occupations were, etc. It was ridiculous.

I filled out what I could and handed it back to her. She told me that they would call me with a decision. This morning she called me and said that the information I provided was still not enough and I should bring anything else I have to prove where I lived, etc. She suggested pictures of me and my mother, medical documents, hospital records from my childhood, rent receipts from my mother and father from the year I was born and other things that I would have no access to. I told her I don’t have this stuff and who does have this stuff. Also, what would a picture prove? I could get anyone’s picture and say it was me and her. She laughed and said that it’s my job to give them things, not their job to verify it.

A number of things seem to have triggered red flags: Little had just moved back to California from New York, so his driver’s license was new, as was his copy of his birth certificate (he had obtained it one week before applying for the passport).

And Little had a lot of circumstantial problems with their requests. Both Little’s parents are deceased. Little’s mother was a drug addict who died when he was five years old. He had not seen much of her before her demise and did not have copies of her birth or death certificates. Her family disowned her, and Little had little to no contact with his maternal relatives throughout his life. He was raised by his aunt and cousin, both of whom filed affidavits of birth and identity on Little’s behalf.

Little also contacted his congressman, who agreed to make an inquiry with the State Department. But his response indicated that the State Department

need[s] substantial proof of your mother’s presence in the U.S. at your time of birth. They will be unable to issue you a passport without that evidence … that could include your mother’s medical records from when she gave birth, any rental or mortgage agreements, a copy of her taxes, or any other documentation that could prove her residency. Additionally, DOS will need additional documentation from you [sic] school, including school records.

Not only did the passport office require all this documentation, but they demanded that various forms be signed by Little’s aunt and cousin, as well as other witnesses, in the presence of an acceptance agent during business hours — and everyone who needed to sign the forms worked. He was also told that he could not obtain his mother’s medical records without a court order.

And that wasn’t all Little needed. When Little went back to the passport office with his aunt and cousin, the demands piled up:

We gave her my dad’s death certificate, my school records, pictures of me with my mother (the only three in existence), a letter from my employer stating that it would cause me and my company financial hardship if we were denied, the biographical questionnaire which has all of the places I ever lived and the places my father and mother lived that we could dig up, a copy of my latest tax return, and my mother’s birth details (we don’t have access to her birth or death certificate at this time…) as well as affidavits from my aunt that she raised me and my godbrother who … was raised with me and has known me since birth.

And it still didn’t suffice:

She didn’t seem to care about any of the documents and only kept asking questions about my mother. … She was a drug addict and she passed away and that she raised me with my dad. The lady didn’t accept that we wouldn’t have her tax returns … She was very dismissive.

It would take four to six weeks to obtain any back tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) — yet his employer needed him to leave within one week. Their client in China had requested that Little and no one else handle its account, and very stubbornly said it would drop their company from a very lucrative contract if Little did not go.

The agent took the documents and told Little that the office would review them and give him the answer by the end of the day. Little and his relatives spent two and a half hours answering questions, and then the answer came back: “Application denied.”

Our forum advocates suggested that Little contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and his senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both Democrats).

Little asked Sen. Boxer for assistance, and with her prodding as well as his employer’s, he finally discovered the cause of the problem: Little was a victim of identity theft. Someone had previously applied for a passport in Little’s name, using his social security number, which the State Department never bothered to disclose to Little.

But Boxer’s office staff secured for Little a temporary Emergency Travel Passport for this trip only.

It’s inexplicable to Little and to our advocates, both in the forum and on the advocacy team, why the State Department couldn’t have notified Little of the previous passport application and why its agents kept asking for information he and his remaining relatives repeatedly told them he couldn’t provide.

We can only conclude that government agencies and bodies work in mysterious ways — just like the Deity that their agents seem to believe gave them the authority to give a U.S. citizen an unnecessarily hard time.

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