History and Future of the Passport

The Brooklyn Law School Library latest New Books List contains The Passport in America: The History of a Document by Craig Robertson (Call #KF4794 .R63 2010). The 340 page book is the first history of the US passport and offers an account of how the passport came to the most reliable document to answer the question: who are you? Historically, the passport originated as an official letter of introduction addressed to foreign governments on behalf of American travelers. Prior to World War I, passports were not required to cross American borders, and while some people struggled to understand how a passport could accurately identify a person, others took advantage of this new document to advance claims for citizenship. From the strategic use of passport applications by freed slaves and a campaign to allow married women to get passports in their maiden names, to the “passport nuisance” of the 1920s and the contested addition of photographs and other identification technologies on the passport, the book sheds  light on issues of individual and national identity in modern US history.

Interestingly, since 9/11, the difficulties in travel have not lessened the desire for travel as US Department of State statistics show that passport applications have almost doubled from 2001 when there were just over 7 million passports to almost 14 million this year. While the cost of a passport application is a relative bargain at  $135, the US Department of State last year attempted to make the process more difficult with its proposal for a new Biographical Questionnaire for passport applicants. The proposed new Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information.  The proposed form states that “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.” For more on the proposal, see the post at the Consumer Traveler blog. The US Passport Book and Passport Card for adults are valid for ten years. Passports for minors under age 16 are valid for five years. The US Passport is not just used for travel anymore. It serves as proof of citizenship and identity for important purposes such as work authorization and eligibility for many Federal benefits.