In late May, President Trump issued an order banning entry for all travelers coming from Brazil, a country where the number of COVID-19 cases is second only to that of the United States. In response, the U.S. Embassy in Brasília urged Americans to leave the country immediately.
“As this crisis has unfolded, things have developed very quickly. That being said, if returning to the U.S. is something that you and your family want to do, our official advice is to do it now. Now means as soon as possible,” one consular official said during a virtual town hall organized by the embassy. “Now means now.”
This was just one of the many examples of how hundreds of U.S. consular officials around the world have snapped into action to bring home more than 100,000 Americans traveling or living abroad in more than 130 countries (as of mid-June) as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe.
The large-scale effort even inspired a new virtual exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy called “Bringing #AmericansHome.” Since the country’s founding, one video says, U.S. diplomats have worked to repatriate shipwrecked American sailors, protect the cargo of U.S. merchants in foreign ports, settle the estates of Americans who have died abroad, evacuate Americans from countries experiencing political unrest — and, now, secure safe passage home for Americans in the face of a fast-moving pandemic.
The COVID-19 repatriation effort has become one of the rare bright spots coming out of a State Department battered by bad press and low morale ever since Trump came to office. Most recently, that includes the resignation of a top State Department official over the president’s handling of racial tensions across the country — a reflection of longstanding complaints over a lack of diversity at Foggy Bottom.
Yet even when it came to the massive campaign to bring Americans home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department initially got mostly negative reviews.
Various outlets reported harrowing stories of Americans left confused and stranded abroad, especially as travel restrictions came down, flights became scarce and U.S. consular officials were quickly overwhelmed.
According to a March 25 article in Politico by Sam Mintz, some Americans “turned to alternatives like risky border crossings from Guatemala into Mexico — including bringing along enough money to potentially pay off customs officials — and chartering a jet flown by a private security firm staffed by former military and intelligence officers.”
Among those stranded was Melissa Uribe, a pregnant woman in Guatemala who was in need of medical attention. After she finally secured a commercial flight, the State Department notified her that she had been selected for a State-chartered flight, but she told Politico that she did not trust the department after its poor communication and returned home to California on her own.
In one well-publicized incident, American tourists and other foreigners in Peru said authorities doused them with an unknown chemical after imposing a quarantine on their hostel in April. (Several Americans infected with the virus were eventually flown back on a State Department medevac plane.)
Many Democrats said the lack of preparedness was part of a larger pattern in an administration that ignored the urgency of the pandemic in those critical first few weeks and months.
“While the scale of the pandemic may not have been entirely predictable, if this administration, including Secretary [Mike] Pompeo and his senior leadership team, had taken the coronavirus threat seriously and planned ahead, we may have been able to avoid some of the confusion and chaos Americans abroad encountered in their efforts to return home,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that simply did not happen. As a result, the State Department now has to try to catch up and make up for lost time.”
Even some Republicans voiced frustration with the Republican administration’s response.
The hashtag #AmericansStuckInPeru “is due to lack of urgency” by some mid-level State Department employees, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted in March. “We didn’t need you to ‘track’ this, we needed you to solve this.”
That tweet came after an American Airlines plane headed to Lima was forced to turn around because the State Department hadn’t secured permission from the Peruvian government for it to land.
But the incident also illustrates how the State Department has been at times forced to navigate foreign bureaucratic hurdles and negotiate with unresponsive or uncooperative governments. (Politico for instance reported that the Peruvian government was blocking the return of U.S. citizens until it received assurances that its own citizens could leave the U.S.)
Some defenders of State’s response point out that many of the Americans who had to be evacuated chose to take a vacation despite explicit State Department travel warnings not to do so.
Other officials say the fast-moving pandemic created a logistical nightmare.
“One of the biggest challenges is simply the unprecedented nature of this pandemic, which led to a sudden shutdown of borders and heightened health risks to travelers in all corners of the globe,” Ian G. Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, told The Diplomat in an email.
“Another major challenge was the number of Americans who found themselves in extremely remote areas throughout the world, from the Amazon jungle to the foot of Mount Everest. There was, quite literally, no precedent for a global crisis of this magnitude. In some areas, local conditions such as quarantines or remoteness compelled U.S. citizens to shelter in place until the crisis has passed, and we continue to do all we can to help them. A number of U.S. citizens initially expressed interest in repatriation assistance and have since decided to remain in place overseas. That said, we successfully repatriated the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens who wanted to return to the United States.”
In fact, while it may have been initially caught off guard, the State Department has since been widely praised for its repatriation efforts — even by those who had been among its harshest critics in Congress.
On June 12, the Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution praising State Department officials for their work to bring Americans home. The resolution was introduced by Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the committee’s chair.
“Every day for the past six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American people have been reminded of the exemplary capabilities of our career diplomacy and development professionals. Even during the most trying circumstances — and this pandemic has been that — they rise to the challenge of serving our nation and protecting the American people,” said Menendez.
But the New Jersey Democrat’s praise for State Department staff did not rise to the leadership level.
“The lack of preparedness and planning by the Trump administration for repatriations of this scale did not stop our nation’s career civil service and foreign service professionals from bravely tackling an unprecedented challenge, even if it meant sacrificing their own health to protect their fellow Americans,” Menendez said in a statement when the resolution was introduced on May 21.
Still, Congress’s general support for career officials at State has not gone unnoticed by those officials.
“We are grateful for all of the expressions of gratitude, and for the strong support of Congress. Our priority at the State Department remains the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens overseas, and we will do all we can to keep American travelers informed and safe,” Brownlee said.
The State Department launched its Repatriation Task Force on March 19. Among the Americans who were evacuated immediately were State’s own employees — including those stuck in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the pandemic at the start of the year.
The removal of State Department employees abroad also complicated efforts on the ground to repatriate Americans, although many U.S. consular officials and diplomats stayed to help, scrambling to arrange not only flights but also boats and buses to whisk Americans out of COVID-19 hotspots.
“In addition to organizing repatriation flights and helping U.S. citizens get to the airport to get on these flights, we are regularly updating U.S. citizens overseas on the latest options to depart, helping U.S. citizens find commercial flight options where available, and providing repatriation loans to manage the up-front payment of costs of commercial flights,” Brownlee, who spearheaded the 24/7 effort, told us.
The State Department cannot waive the costs of international travel or help defray people’s expenses, which can be high. But it does offer loans to Americans for the purpose of returning home. Those who take out a loan, however, will not be able receive a new U.S. passport until it is paid back.
“By law, the State Department charges a median full-fare price for the planes it charters, and commercial carriers are hiking up costs to make up for flying with sometimes near-empty planes. If Americans don’t repay the promissory notes, legally binding IOUs that they sign before boarding the flights, by U.S. law, they risk not being issued a new passport,” Kimberly Dozier reported for TIME on April 20.
For one American, Natalie Kosloff, a U.N. peacekeeper deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the State Department paid $3,500 for her to fly on a U.K. Embassy flight to Washington by way of London — the costs of which she must pay back. Kosloff “estimates the whole experience will have cost her around $10,000 out of pocket,” according to the TIME article.
This is not unlike some other countries’ emergency procedures for helping their citizens return home. The U.K., for instance, urged its citizens to fly commercial where air carriers were still operating. In places where commercial airlines had grounded flights, the U.K. set up a £75 million program to charter flights, with the funds meant to “keep the costs down” for travelers booking the private flights.
British citizens were expected to “book and pay directly through a dedicated travel management company,” as U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced.
While Congress has generally praised the State Department for ramping up its repatriation strategy, some members are still urging a review of “lessons learned” from the crisis.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information about repatriation efforts.
Among the information House members wanted was a list of all COVID-19-related repatriation flights, specifying whether each flight was a State Department-funded charter or a commercial charter; a list of instances in which other agencies’ air assets were used or requested; an “estimate of potential new hotspots around the world” where repatriation efforts could be needed in the future; and an accounting of how the State Department used any funds from the CARES Act, the emergency spending relief bill Congress passed and Trump signed on March 27.
Neither Engel nor the committee’s ranking minority member, Michael McCaul (R-Texas), returned repeated requests for comment.
While the Senate resolution commended the State Department, it also urged officials to continue to help stranded Americans.
On that note, Brownlee, speaking at a May 5 briefing for reporters, said his office’s work isn’t done.
“While demand is in decline, we haven’t applied the brakes yet…. As long as there are U.S. citizens in a country, we’ll do everything we can to make sure that they know their options so they’ll know whether to get on the next flight out, if there is one, or whether they’ll need to shelter in place for some time,” he said.
“From a Washington perspective, we’ve run the U.S. government-chartered repatriation flights with an eye to an eventual finish line. That said, we still don’t have a hard end date. That will be dictated by need, and we will continue to assess closely conditions on a country-by-country basis,” he added.
“But to bang on the drum I’ve been banging on since the beginning, U.S. citizens who are thinking of coming back need to act now.”
That warning comes as countries such as Brazil continue to struggle with a surge in cases, which are also popping up in countries such as South Korea and Singapore that were once believed to have contained the virus.
It also comes as experts warn of a possible second wave of the coronavirus this fall — coupled with the administration’s muddled messaging.
While Vice President Mike Pence argued that “there isn’t a coronavirus ‘second wave’” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, others in the administration have signaled that they are already preparing for one.
“We are filling the stockpile in anticipation of a possible problem in the fall. We are doing everything we can beneath the surface, working as hard as we possibly can,” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told CNN on June 21.
Meanwhile, President Trump has sought to downplay the virus even as wide swaths of the U.S. have seen the number of coronavirus cases skyrocket, with nearly 130,000 American deaths as of this printing. Despite the dramatic spike, the president has gone ahead with controversial rallies that defy the very social distancing measures that experts say are necessary to contain outbreaks.
Regardless of what happens next, Americans are much less likely to travel in the near future. According to one survey, only 56% of U.S. adults would be willing to travel on a commercial flight even 60 days after experts declare it safe to travel again.
That may come as a small relief to the State Department officials who’d be tasked with bringing those travelers back home in the event of yet another emergency.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.