April 09, 2020

Harris, Senators Demand State Department Take Steps To Ensure Immediate & Safe Return Of Americans Stranded Abroad Due To COVID-19 Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As thousands of Americans and lawful permanent residents remain stranded overseas due to COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris on Thursday joined Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and 9 of their colleagues in calling on the State Department to take steps to secure their immediate and safe return to the United States. The senators urged the State Department to provide up-to-date and detailed data on the number of Americans unable to return home to ensure necessary resources, improve coordination between agencies and governments to maximize sharing of information, and provide repatriation flights if other options are not available.

“We write to express our urgent concern for the thousands of Americans and lawful permanent residents still stranded overseas due to travel restrictions related to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19),” the senators wrote in a letter to State Department Secretary Mike Pompeo. “We understand that efforts to return to the United States have been complicated by a lack of commercial flight options, national travel prohibitions, closed borders and airspace, and escalating costs, among other challenging factors. We urge you to provide disaggregated data on the number of stranded Americans and lawful permanent residents, centralize available information, coordinate with other agencies, and provide repatriation flights if commercial options are unavailable.”

The senators slammed the State Department for not yet implementing centralized, standardized guidance on how to return home amid the pandemic, as alarming reports indicate embassy officials worldwide continue to give conflicting guidance to stranded Americans.

“Given the rapid implementation of travel restrictions and difficulties securing aviation permissions, the Department must immediately centralize and standardize guidance on how to return home while exerting maximum diplomatic pressure in negotiating with foreign governments to ensure flight access and assistance for all Americans,” the senators wrote.

The senators also urged the State Department to provide Congress with information to ensure necessary financial relief for Americans who had already incurred high costs to return home.

The senators wrote, “Many of Americans and lawful permanent residents had already incurred thousands of dollars in unexpected costs as they sought commercial options at skyrocketing prices, or paid significant sums for transportation to international hubs, while navigating a rapidly evolving situation that is no fault of their own. We request additional information regarding additional authorities or resources that may be necessary to provide financial relief and waive fees for transportation provided by the State Department repatriation Task Force, including transportation facilitated and provided by the Department of Defense.” 

The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Chris Murphy (D-CT).

The full letter is available here and copied below.

Dear Secretary Pompeo:

We write to express our urgent concern for the thousands of Americans and lawful permanent residents still stranded overseas due to travel restrictions related to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). We understand that efforts to return to the United States have been complicated by a lack of commercial flight options, national travel prohibitions, closed borders and airspace, and escalating costs, among other challenging factors. We urge you to provide disaggregated data on the number of stranded Americans and lawful permanent residents, centralize available information, coordinate with other agencies, and provide repatriation flights if commercial options are unavailable.

At the time of writing, the State Department reports that it has coordinated the repatriation of over 45,000 Americans from 78 countries since January 29, 2020, while estimating that an additional 24,000 Americans still seek to return home. More specific data is essential to assess how many people require repatriation and ensure necessary resources. We ask that you provide the most up-to-date data on the number of Americans and lawful permanent residents unable to return home at this time, disaggregated by country, and encourage you to implement initiatives beyond the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to track and report this data if necessary.

We are alarmed by reports that Americans and lawful permanent residents abroad are receiving conflicting guidance from embassy officials. Given the rapid implementation of travel restrictions and difficulties securing aviation permissions, the Department must immediately centralize and standardize guidance on how to return home while exerting maximum diplomatic pressure in negotiating with foreign governments to ensure flight access and assistance for all Americans. Additionally, the State Department should provide assistance to Americans and lawful permanent residents who may be subject to in-country travel restrictions that prevent them from traveling to an airport to return to the United States.

Where commercial flight options are no longer available, we encourage and support further cooperation with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to repatriate Americans and lawful permanent residents using government aircraft. We were pleased to see that you secured support from the U.S. Transportation Command in navigating the complexities of this extraordinary situation and encourage you to continue to leverage the logistical expertise and network of other agencies.

We are pleased that the State Department has chartered over a dozen flights to repatriate Americans and lawful permanent residents, and urge you to ensure such options continue. But many of Americans and lawful permanent residents had already incurred thousands of dollars in unexpected costs as they sought commercial options at skyrocketing prices, or paid significant sums for transportation to international hubs, while navigating a rapidly evolving situation that is no fault of their own. We request additional information regarding additional authorities or resources that may be necessary to provide financial relief and waive fees for transportation provided by the State Department repatriation Task Force, including transportation facilitated and provided by the Department of Defense. We further urge you to coordinate with other nations that are also repatriating citizens from countries where Americans are currently stranded.

Thank you for your urgent assistance, and we look forward to working with you to provide any additional authorities or funding you may require in order to ensure the timely and safe repatriation of all Americans and lawful permanent residents globally.

Sincerely,

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