Passports, please! (Soapbox warning)

(Stepping on soapbox now…)

Only 35% of Americans hold passports, making 65% of our compatriots ineligible to travel outside of US borders. While the proportion of Americans with passports is strikingly low, what is even more surprising is that 50% of passport holders had their passport issued between 2000 and 2012. (As a side note, passports issued to U.S. citizens over the age of 16 have a 10 year validity, so millions– almost 21.5 million, according to the U.S. State Department– of passports have expired or will expire between 2010 and the end of this year.) The biggest spike in passport applications came in 2007, when they became required for U.S. citizens traveling by air to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and parts of the Caribbean, and in 2009, when passports were mandatory for land and sea entry, as well.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the number of Americans with a passport was a paltry 2.8%. So, while only 35% of us today are able to board international flights or drive from Boston to Montreal or from San Diego to Tijuana, it is heartening to know that this number is on the rise. And if people only have stamps from Canada or Mexico, or if they have traveled to the Caribbean only to find themselves protected within the confines of an all-inclusive resort, at least they have traveled. They have experienced customs and immigration checkpoints, realized that navigating international airports isn’t as difficult as it may sound, and understand the thrill of merely being outside of the US. And once it starts, it never ends…

Passports are more than travel documents. They are an exercise of your rights as a citizen. A U.S. passport will grant you access to any country or territory in the world, many of which do not require visas for U.S. citizens. (The reverse is not true: citizens of countries that don’t participate the U.S. Visa Waiver Program face long processing times and in-person interviews before receiving permission to travel within our borders. But the VWP’s discriminatory practices are the subject of another, as yet unwritten post.) A U.S. passport is a golden ticket, a document for which the majority of the world is ineligible, a direct request from the Secretary of State to foreign governments to allow you to enter other countries. An American passport states: “The Secretary of State for the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.” And when your travels are over and you are exhausted, with little more than foreign change in your pocket, used ticket stubs and metro cards, used boarding passes, thousands of photographs, and some souvenirs, this document will let you go home. For all their surliness and lack of humor, I enjoy hearing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents say, “Welcome home.”

So, those of us in the 35% Club should celebrate our membership. And we should encourage others to join us. Obtaining a passport is one of the easiest ways to assert yourself as a citizen of the U.S. You may not need a passport today or tomorrow, but you’ll have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you have the freedom to go if you want to. (Or when you can afford it. Even “budget” travel can be pricey, but there are definitely good deals out there. Travel shouldn’t be a privilege anyway, it should be a right.) Cancun isn’t that far away, after all, and it takes less time to get from Boston to Reykjavik, Dublin, or London than it does to get from Boston to Los Angeles. So GO! Please, go! Soak it up, try something new, travel to understand others and understand yourself. Go to a real socialist country, talk to people in the former Eastern Bloc, and you’ll learn that Obama is no more a socialist than I am a trapeze artist.

To the 65%: Take the leap and visit our friends across the pond! Or visit our neighbors to the north and south. Try poutine in Quebec, or eat a real empanada by the beach in Mexico. You’re so close already! Just GO! You can start your journey here.

To the 35%: Keep going! Our experience and perspective will contribute to a stronger America, whatever your profession or political leanings. We do not and cannot exist in isolation, and the knowledge that comes after a foray overseas is knowledge that cannot be gained elsewhere. Knowing how to communicate with someone when you don’t speak their language, understanding that every story has two sides, and learning that the world isn’t just about us (or U.S.) are skills and perspectives that we, our children, and our future so desperately need.

(Stepping off soapbox…)

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