Conner Gorry, 51, an American journalist who lives in Cuba, spent several frantic weeks trying to renew her expiring passport earlier this year. The U.S. Embassy in Havana is closed for all but emergency services. For six weeks, she tried to book an appointment, and received no response. Ms. Gorry grew so stressed that she developed gastritis, and at one point, she contemplated spending more than $13,000 to charter a plane from Havana to Miami, where she knew she would be able to renew her passport by mail.

She eventually found a flight out of Havana, and flew to the U.S. with one week left on her passport. She is unsure of when she will return to Cuba. The situation, she said, made her furious.

“The Covid thing is one thing. But the U.S. has citizens all over the world, and a diplomatic corps all over the world. What are they doing to protect and attend to us?”

Documents for American citizens within the United States are also getting stuck in the backlog. When Dayna and Brian Lee, who are Tony Award-winning producers of “Angels in America,” had twin baby girls in early April, the bureaucratic headaches started before they even brought their newborn daughters from the hospital to their home in New York City, where they have lived for several years.

The couple is originally from Toronto and their daughters, Emmy and Ella, are eligible for dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship but are currently without passports from either country. The infants must have American passports first so their parents can travel with them to Canada, where the girls will be able to also receive their Canadian passports. But for weeks after the girls were born, Mr. and Mrs. Lee were unable to book appointments at any U.S. passport office within a three-hour drive of New York City. They ended up turning to an immigration lawyer for help.

“It’s so inexplicably stressful, mixed up with the overwhelming joy of having these two beautiful lives in front of you,” Mr. Lee said. “But we’ve made the decision that come hell or high water, we will be with our families this summer.”

Elizabeth Goss, an immigration attorney based in Boston, said she expects delays and scheduling headaches for both visas and U.S. passports to last another year.

“It’s like a cruise ship that needs to readjust,” she said. “It’s not a speedboat.”


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Covid and Travel: Why an Estimated 100,000 Americans Abroad Face Passport Problems

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.

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).

ItsEasy Passport & Visa, a passport-and-visa-expediting service, said that many of them are so small that they’re nearly impossible to track.

“Since there is an online appointment system, anybody can log on, stockpile these appointments and resell them,” he said. “In the United States, they can be sold for $200 or $250, but out of the country they can charge much more.”

Mr. Shemesh got the broker’s phone number and transferred the money, and in one day, he had a confirmed appointment.

“I tried for eight months to get an appointment, and it was really a bummer because my money is something I have to work hard for. I paid more to renew my passport than I did on the ticket to Los Angeles. It felt like blackmail.”

Desperate Americans in other countries have considered paying for other services, as well.

Conner Gorry, 51, an American journalist who lives in Cuba, spent several frantic weeks trying to renew her expiring passport earlier this year. The U.S. Embassy in Havana is closed for all but emergency services. For six weeks, she tried to book an appointment, and received no response. Ms. Gorry grew so stressed that she developed gastritis, and at one point, she contemplated spending more than $13,000 to charter a plane from Havana to Miami, where she knew she would be able to renew her passport by mail.

She eventually found a flight out of Havana, and flew to the U.S. with one week left on her passport. She is unsure of when she will return to Cuba. The situation, she said, made her furious.

“The Covid thing is one thing. But the U.S. has citizens all over the world, and a diplomatic corps all over the world. What are they doing to protect and attend to us?”

Documents for American citizens within the United States are also getting stuck in the backlog. When Dayna and Brian Lee, who are Tony Award-winning producers of “Angels in America,” had twin baby girls in early April, the bureaucratic headaches started before they even brought their newborn daughters from the hospital to their home in New York City, where they have lived for several years.

The couple is originally from Toronto and their daughters, Emmy and Ella, are eligible for dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship but are currently without passports from either country. The infants must have American passports first so their parents can travel with them to Canada, where the girls will be able to also receive their Canadian passports. But for weeks after the girls were born, Mr. and Mrs. Lee were unable to book appointments at any U.S. passport office within a three-hour drive of New York City. They ended up turning to an immigration lawyer for help.

“It’s so inexplicably stressful, mixed up with the overwhelming joy of having these two beautiful lives in front of you,” Mr. Lee said. “But we’ve made the decision that come hell or high water, we will be with our families this summer.”

Elizabeth Goss, an immigration attorney based in Boston, said she expects delays and scheduling headaches for both visas and U.S. passports to last another year.

“It’s like a cruise ship that needs to readjust,” she said. “It’s not a speedboat.”


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Love or Spycraft: What Landed an American Teacher in a Cuban Prison?

Her family believes that Ms. López fell for an old love and was taken in by him.

James Cason, a former top U.S. official in Cuba, said most Cuban diplomats are known to be spies for their government, particularly those posted in the United States.

“She had to know what she was getting into, marrying a Cuban diplomat,” Mr. Cason said. “Here in Miami, if you marry a Cuban diplomat, you’re considered a traitor, basically.”

Cuban court documents are unequivocal: Mr. Milanés had been a Cuban intelligence agent. And, the court records say, he confessed that to her after they married on Christmas Eve 2007.

By that time, Mr. Milanés lived in Cuba. He was not allowed to leave the island, so his wife spent the next decade visiting him during long weekends and school breaks. According to Cuban court records, Mr. Milanés was an alcoholic who depended on her financially.

In January 2017, Ms. López received a cryptic call from her husband, asking her to come to Cuba, her lawyer, Mr. Poblete, said.

Mr. Milanés had been caught on a boat in Baracoa, on the eastern coast, trying to flee Cuba, according to a person familiar with the case who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. He had called his wife from custody, luring her to the island.

Ms. López flew to Havana and was arrested in the airport, on her way back.

“I don’t care if he had a gun to his head,” Mr. Peralta said of her husband. “That’s your wife. What kind of man are you to throw your wife under the bus?”

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A confused federal effort to retrieve Americans overseas in the initial outbreak led to safety risks, a new report says.

The government’s confused effort to retrieve Americans overseas during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak compromised the safety of the evacuees, federal employees and communities near where Americans returned to, according to a new report published on Monday by Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog.

The effort was so dysfunctional that federal health agencies could not even agree on the purpose and terms of the mission, contradicting one another about whether it was classified as an evacuation or repatriation.

The more-than-yearlong investigation by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the evacuation of Americans from China bogged down badly as different divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services argued over which was responsible. That fighting undermined the earliest attempts to protect those Americans after they returned from China, where the coronavirus was believed to have originated.

The G.A.O. said three agencies within the department — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and the Administration for Children and Families — “did not follow plans or guidance delineating their roles and responsibilities for repatriating individuals during a pandemic — an event these agencies had never experienced.”

whistle-blower complaint filed early last year. Last April, the department’s top lawyer concluded that federal health employees without adequate protective gear or training interacted with Americans quarantined at the base, validating the whistle-blower’s central complaint.

According to the G.A.O. report issued Monday, as the Administration for Children and Families, or A.C.F., began its role overseeing the repatriation of the evacuees, lawyers at H.H.S. determined that the flights from Wuhan, China, constituted an evacuation, not a repatriation, and therefore were the C.D.C.’s responsibility.

For that reason, A.C.F. officials said resources from the federal government’s repatriation program were not used. But the decision from H.H.S. lawyers was not communicated to the C.D.C., the report said, and G.A.O. investigators were not given an explanation of the distinction between a repatriation and evacuation.

A focus of the report is the federal government’s response at March Air Reserve Base, near Los Angeles, where the health agencies functioned independently and without coordination, the G.A.O. said. As the A.C.F. prepared for the evacuees in late January, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response was abruptly put in charge on the day they arrived.

A.S.P.R.’s Incident Management Team “was not mobilized until after the flight landed and did not deploy to the site until January 31,” the report said. That led to broad confusion about who was in charge, with A.S.P.R. officials believing they were only supporting other agencies there.

The report describes other significant missteps, some of which had already been made public. It cites last year’s report from H.H.S. lawyers describing a scene at the base in which an A.C.F. official told health department employees to remove personal protective gear at a meeting with evacuees, lest there be “bad optics.”

Federal health agencies also struggled to stop those on the base from leaving in the absence of a federal quarantine order, which lasted several days, the report said. One person with the “potential to spread” Covid-19 attempted to leave the base.

The G.A.O. also wrote that federal health officials disagreed on which agency was responsible for infection control on the base, while the use of personal protective gear was uneven among poorly-trained federal employees there. The dispute led to an almost comical bureaucratic tangle.

At first, A.C.F. and A.S.P.R. officials viewed the C.D.C. as the body with more expertise and authority, including under a section of the federal government’s guidance on repatriation procedures related to Ebola. But C.D.C. officials told their colleagues that section was not applicable to other diseases, and that the agency was not responsible for managing the employees of other agencies. Still, the C.D.C. offered training after it was requested.

“According to H.H.S., C.D.C. personnel on the ground provided inconsistent and informal infection prevention and control guidance for the first 3 days of the mission because of a lack of clear roles,” the report said.

The G.A.O. noted that H.H.S. did not feature repatriation in its planning exercises for a pandemic, and therefore was not equipped to coordinate such an effort. “Until H.H.S. conducts such exercises, it will be unable to test its repatriation plans during a pandemic and identify areas for improvement,” the office wrote.

H.H.S. agreed with its recommendations, the G.A.O. said.

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