As a college kid in 1989, I traveled to London and Paris to visit friends who were my fellow students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. At that time, less than 3% of Americans possessed a U.S. Passport.
Twenty five years later, more than 40% of American citizens carry passports. Proudly, New Jersey has the highest percentage of residents with a valid passport at 62%. The state with the lowest percentage of its citizens carrying passports is Mississippi, registering in at 18%.
Over the same period of time, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany have seen a slight increase in the number of citizens holding a passport, and today they register in at a whopping 70%, 75%, and 90%, respectively.
Why have we seen such a dramatic increase in the issuance of U.S. Passports? It’s certainly not due to an increase in cultural exploration, due to the fact that currently only 3.5% of Americans travel overseas each year.
Some have argued that we are overworked and that the average worker only has two weeks of vacation per year and that’s not enough time to travel abroad. And still some will contend that the expensive cost to travel abroad makes it prohibitive. But proof shows that flights from the U.S. are about the same in price to flights from the U.K. to foreign lands at equal distances, and there are many ways to travel the world cheaply.
First of all, we as Americans are terrified to travel abroad, and our trepidation only increases with each passing news cycle. Also, we have a proud history of utilizing our vacation time to travel within our enormous borders. And until 2007, we were free to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda with only State-issued identification.
In 2001, the 9/11 attacks happened, and in October of 2001 President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act. This Act, among other things, strengthened the identification requirements for opening a bank account and even withdrawing money from that account. More than that, the Patriot Act began a conversation about whether or not we need a national I.D. card, i.e. the passport.
The U.S. State Department had valid concerns over terrorists entering the United States, which prompted the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative to require U.S. citizens entering the country from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda to have valid U.S. passports. It was initially implemented in 2007 for air travel and then expanded in 2009 to include sea and land travel.
An all-time record 18.3 million Americans applied for a passport in 2007, easily surpassing the previous year’s record of 12.1 million passports issued in the year 2006, and shattering the number of passports issued seven years before in 2000 (7.2 million), the year before terrorist attacks of 2001.
In 2008, the State Department began placing an electronic chip inside each passport which contains your personal information. This chip, also known as a RFID (or Radio Frequency Identification Device), is the same device embedded in our E-ZPass and used to tag clothing and pets.
In times of crises, we often have a tendency to overreact (Ebola in America) or underreact (N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s initial two-game suspension of Ray Rice) when the middle ground would be a sensible compromise.
But in today’s political climate, compromise is perceived as less of an art form and more of a scarlet letter.
Thankfully, talk of a national identification card has been on the wane, but the more Americans possessing passports with the ability to travel freely around the world is a step in the right direction.
Christopher J. Durkin is the Essex County Clerk