With the COVID-19 pandemic causing difficulties in accessing consular services in the United States, leaders of the Portuguese community are asking the Portuguese government to help solve problems exacerbated in recent months.
“Despite difficulties with consular services for many years, over the past year, we’ve seen an increase in people who are interested in obtaining Portuguese nationality. People who want to return to Portugal or invest in a property or business, and more students who would like to study abroad,” told Lusa Angela Simões, president of PALCUS.
The community leader talked about a “perfect storm” created by the accumulation of requests and the additional travel restrictions due to COVID-19.
“The situation has become progressively worse and our board has been discussing it and collecting data for some time,” she said. “This is a national problem – and while some areas are more affected than others, all are experiencing ongoing problems that should have been resolved long before the pandemic.
In California, where the largest Portuguese community in the country resides, mostly from the Azores, the founder of the Bom Samaritano Foundation community support association, Alcides Machado, told Lusa that at least 580 people are waiting. These people cannot get appointments at the San Francisco Consulate General until the end of June 2021.
“We are completely ignored,” said Alcides Machado, who operates in the Hilmar area, where 45.2% of the population is from Portuguese origin (data from City-Data). “The consulate in San Francisco does not answer the phone, and we can only contact them by email. People are calling the Portuguese organizations asking for help”, he said.
The problems motivated the Assistant Regional Secretary for External Relations of the Autonomous Region of the Azores government, Rui Bettencourt, to send a letter to Secretary of State Berta Nunes. In cause are people who need services that they cannot obtain elsewhere, such as the renewal of passports that allow them to travel to Portugal.
A source from Berta Nunes’ office told Lusa that the letter deserved “the best attention” and that attendance to the public was resumed in June throughout the entire consular network, giving priority to the appointments canceled because of the pandemic.
The San Francisco Consulate, which serves more than a dozen states, had to reduce the capacity of the number of people who can be attended on the site after the reopening, following the health rules in effect in California.
“It was expected that there would appear waiting lists,” considered the consul general Maria João Lopes-Cardoso, emphasizing that “all urgencies are attended and the people who really need a service have had no problem in obtaining it.
She also said that until March “there was no waiting list at the Consulate General in San Francisco, nor in the places where consular permanencies are regularly held (San José, Turlock, Tulare, Artesia, and San Diego)”.
These permanences “will be resumed as soon as it is safe to do so” and a “plan of action” has already been established to them.
Alcides Machado, on his turn, stated that “there has always been a waiting list problem” and the cancellation of consular permanences and the restrictions to access the consulate have aggravated the issue. ” They don’t go to these places and they can only receive a few people a day at the consulate”.
But this problem is not from now on, it is from long ago”, he considered.
The community leader pointed batteries to the Portuguese government, which considered responsible for the situation. “There are thousands of Portuguese out here who need to be served.
On the consulate’s side, it is believed that “this problem in the delays in the appointments can be solved in a short time.” When more people can be served, and the consular permanences will return. According to the consul, the waiting lists that had been created in 2018 were eliminated “with some agility” last year.
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In other regions of the country, the Secretary of State for the Communities’ office source pointed to the example of Florida, where the network was strengthened with regular and alternate consular permanences between Palm Coast and Miami. Also, at the Newark Consulate, where there is a massive increase in the volume of cases received by mail because of the “Consulate at Home” “face-to-face service is running smoothly.
PALCUS proposed, in its letter, several solutions to speed up the processes, such as investing in technology, hiring more staff, and facilitating online means of payment.
ARYG // VM