Two U.S. lawmakers from states with significant expat populations are planning to introduce legislation they say would make it easier for the U.S. State Department to protect American citizens and nationals overseas.
The lawmakers, both Democrats, are Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey and Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro.
Their bill, known as the Expanding Vital American Citizen Services Overseas Act (EVACS) of 2020, is particularly timely at the moment, they say in a joint statement, "as countries close their borders and take action to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, impacting the travel of U.S. citizens and nationals around the world".
The Expanding Vital American Citizen Services Overseas Act would, they add, "expedite and expand American citizen services at U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions worldwide".
In their statement about their proposed legislation, which may be viewed on their websites, the lawmakers explain that "American citizen services" includes emergency passports, official reports of births abroad and virtual or in-person welfare visits to U.S. citizens who are imprisoned or hospitalized, as well as emergency financial assistance and repatriation of U.S. citizens when needed.
The legislation would also call on the U.S. Secretary of State to increasing consular staff levels in order to "improve service to constituents", they add, as well as ensuring that consular systems and procedures "adjust to remote workloads and requirements for social distancing".
Era of cutbacks overseas
Markey and Castro's legislative proposal comes as years of cutbacks of overseas services by the U.S. have made life increasingly difficult for Americans abroad who need assistance from Uncle Sam.
As reported, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last year anounced plans to close all but seven of its 23 overseas offices, including those in London, Frankfurt, Rome and Bangkok.
Such USCIS outposts have traditionally been houses in U.S. embassies around the world, and have assisted Americans with a range of issues involving documents and other matters, for themselves and family members.
Last year's announcement of plans to close much of the USCIS network came less than five years after the U.S. IRS closed all of its overseas taxpayer-assistance centers, citing budgetary constraints.
The last IRS outposts to close were those located in the London and Paris U.S. embassies, and in the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, which were shuttered in 2015.
Ironically, the closure of these IRS outposts coincided almost perfectly with the introduction of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a tax evasion-prevention law that has required non-U.S. financial institutions around the world to report to the U.S. on the accounts of all their American clients, and which has caused more American expats than ever to seek help from the IRS with their tax returns – which they now do online and over the phone, as best they can. Many expats simply delegate their tax issues to a global army of U.S. expat tax return specialists that has grown up in response to the increase in demand for help.
A possible measure of the lack of facilities now available to help Americans abroad might be seen in last year's announcement by the American Embassy in Vienna that it had agreed a deal with McDonald's, the American burger chain, whereby “American citizens traveling in Austria who [found] themselves in distress and without a way to contact the U.S. embassy” would be able to enter “any McDonald’s in Austria” and get the help they needed.
'Obligation to protect Americans'
Castro, pictured left, who is described on his Congressional website as a Texas-born, second-generation Mexican American, and who is also chairman of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, says that the U.S. has "an obligation to protect Americans around the world".
"This bill will reimburse people for COVID-19 evacuations by the U.S. State Department, and also ensure we are better prepared for future global pandemics,” Castro adds.
“The State Department must also ensure diplomatic capabilities are strengthened during this crisis to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow, starting with onboarding new diplomats and members of the Foreign Service to begin their careers as scheduled."
Markey – a ranking Member of the East Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – stressed that lessons had been learned during the recent pandemic, which, he said, had seen his office assisting "hundreds of constituents stranded in more than 30 countries around the globe".
"And we continue to get requests every day," Markey added.
"The brave men and women of the State Department are often risking their own lives in order to help Americans overseas, and we must ensure that they have all the tools and protection they need in order to fulfill their mission."
Markey and Castro say their legislation would facilitate the better and more efficient movement of U.S. citizens and nationals in countries where they are subject to COVID-19 movement restrictions, so they would find it easier to return home; require the State Department to waive or reimburse COVID-19 repatriation travel expenses incurred on or after December 31, 2019; monitor the safety of State Department employees, by requiring a comprehensive report on its COVID-19 risk mitigation procedures, and personal protective equipment availability overseas; and prioritize regular and continued hiring of Foreign Service officers and specialists.
To read and download Markey and Castro's proposed bill, click here.