The US Needs to Get the Small Things Right Too

Recently my wife and I took our daughters to the US Consulate in Hong Kong to renew their US passports. Our girls carry two passport types – the imposing regulation blue US Passport and the US Passport Card. Cards can only be used for land crossings from Canada and Mexico and for arrivals by sea, mostly from the Caribbean and Bermuda.

After dealing with the scrum trying to obtain clearance to go to the US, what we ran into is sadly emblematic of the kind of downhill slope the US seems to be on in some of the smaller details, which is not the way the world’s temporarily remaining superpower should be acting. It may be a vignette, but it is a depressingly telling one.

The book is what we all think a passport should look like. The card looks like just about any national ID card, maybe a bit more pastel than some. The girls have carried both passport types for almost five years. We needed to sort them out for the next five years.

But we hit a snag.

One daughter has first and middle names 17 characters long (counting spaces) while her younger sister's first and middle names are, all in, 20 characters long. With this newest release of the passport card, first and middle names must come in at no more than 19 characters. So, daughter #2 was given a choice – change her name to something shorter on both passports or give up the card.

The official behind the counter explained that if we agreed to change my daughter's name, the US State Department would be delighted to issue an endorsement explaining why she had suddenly become someone else.

I declined the offer. In fact, in the interest of maintaining sisterly peace, I decided that neither girl would get a new passport card. This decision triggered a bit of paperwork and a trip back to the payment window for a refund. The refund required the services of both a local clerk and a senior consular officer.

I did ask the counter official why the department would bother to set a new, lower character limit on given names. Her answer: “Well, you know we have to accept lowest-cost bids on contracts, even if they're not always the best.”

Fair enough as throw-away lines go but the comment got me thinking.

The last couple of versions of the card catered to longer names. There's plenty of space for longer names on the card (it didn't shrink). Ink is cheap. The savings from eliminating a few bits and bytes worth of virtual data, if any, are so small as to be negligible. I'll go out on a limb and say there are no obvious material economies to be gained by truncating people's real names with an arbitrary (and short) character limit.

There are, however, some real-world downsides:

Cost – Meaning time and money. Assume a fully-burdened hourly cost of US$200 for a consular officer (a guess but likely on the low side). At that rate the cost per transaction to authorize a refund or write an endorsement letter is likely north of US$50. Multiply that cost by what, maybe a few hundred thousand people every few years, and all of a sudden we're talking real money.

The downstream costs may be bigger. Every time a U.S. citizen is held up at a border because records don't match, the citizen incurs a loss of time (and an annoyance cost), the border control officer spends his or her country's taxpayer money investigating a non-issue and the people in line behind the American suffer delays.

These consequential costs can carry on for years.

Racism – Intentional or not, the effect of this change falls disproportionately on Americans of Spanish descent. Chinese names are short. Anglo-Saxon names are generally short. Actually, lots of given names are short enough to squeeze into the new field length but old-school Spanish names, not so much.

In the Spanish tradition, people take both their mother's and father's surnames. On US passports, the family name that comes first (the mother's name) is usually recorded as a second middle name. The 19-character limit sacrifices this history. Keep in mind that passport cards are intended to be used at the Mexican border and you begin to wonder which bright spark dreamed up this new name limit and why.

Safety – Policies that take legitimate identification information out of international border control systems can increase uncertainty and thicken the data fog that helps hide criminals and terrorists. Christopher Bartholomew Smith is a fairly easy name for border control agents to chase. As for finding the right Chris Smith — well, that exercise is a little bit harder.

Our younger child would like a new card that carries her first, middle and matrilineal names in full. She would be pleased to get one, as would her sister, and we would all be better off.

Jay Shaw is a long-time Hong Kong resident who runs a listed software company.