Earlier this month, my passport and luggage were stolen from me, towards the end of what was supposed to be a week in Sicily. The following days were a lesson in how the US government fails its citizens stranded abroad, especially those with few financial resources.
Why is this important: A system that relies on paperwork, fees and in-person appointments — in a world where there are safer and more efficient digital alternatives — is making life that much harder for Americans who haven’t done anything wrong.
Past: The beach was to blame. It was beautiful and almost empty, along a dirt road. My girlfriend, Kristen, and I pulled over, locked the rental car, and went for a swim.
- We took our wallets and phones to the beach, but left our passports in the locked car, given Italy’s problem with pickpockets.
- Everything seemed fine when we got back to the car, until an hour later we were staring at the empty trunk. Turns out a door lock was picked.
- We found Kristen’s tote bag in a nearby dumpster, with her passport and credit cards still inside. All they wanted was his money and his AirPods. But our two small suitcases had disappeared, including the one with my passport.
We planned to go home the next morning. Since Kristen still had her passport and last-minute one-way tickets were very expensive, she went ahead. The closest US consulate where I could get an emergency passport was six hours away (plus a ferry ride). And it was closed until Monday.
- I tried everything to get home before. I had a photo of my passport, a driver’s license and a police report. I called my MP’s office. I got permission to fly from the Italian border police and also had a border patrol agent in the United States on the phone, to assure the Delta gate agents that I would be allowed to re-enter the country if they let me board a plane. They did not do it.
- By the time I finally gave up, booked a cheap hotel room, and convinced various Italian border police to let me leave the airport without a passport, I was about $2,000 short, not including replacing stolen items. Which, I realized, I should probably do, since I had been wearing the same clothes since the dumpster dive two days earlier.
The big picture: I am financially privileged enough to afford these unforeseen costs, including the loss of a normal day of work. But not everyone is in my situation, and their government lets them hang.
- There were about a dozen other people in need of emergency passports when the US Embassy in Rome opened Monday morning.
- One of them was a young woman who had her passport, phone and credit cards stolen. She had no way of paying the nearly $200 it costs to get an emergency passport – not to mention the cost of being stranded in Italy if she was unable to obtain a passport at time.
- Some of us who were waiting stepped up to cover his costs.
When I asked the US state department on why things work this way, especially for people like the cashless woman, a spokesperson directed me to this webpage, which says the fee can be waived in certain “extraordinary circumstances”, and the government sometimes grants loans to those without travel funds.
- But none of this information was displayed in the room, we did not hear about it and we could not have looked for it ourselves: the mobile phones, for those who still had them, had been confiscated at the entrance.
The bottom line: The the embassy staff in Italy was courteous and professional. They finally got me my emergency passport in just an hour (purple!), which allowed me to fly home late Monday night. Kristen met me on arrival.
- But they also relied on outdated systems that appeared to involve none of the cameras or facial recognition software familiar to anyone who boarded an international flight from a US airport.
- When it wants, the US government can quickly and accurately verify the identity of people who want to enter the United States. But he’s not using those tools to help Americans stranded abroad, who instead are being asked to travel long distances to buy. new passports — as difficult as that may be.