Laurel's passport office expands to meet growing demand

The passport services office at the Laurel Municipal Center on Sandy Spring Road has become a "one-stop shop," according to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe.

Operated under the direction of the Department of Communications, the office has recently expanded its hours added passport photos to its services.

Former city spokesman Peter Piringer said the city's passport agents processed almost 3,000 applications last fiscal year, leading the mayor to expand the office and add an employee to the staff.

"We talked internally," said Moe. "And I thought it was a great idea to get more of the general public involved. These people [seeking passport services] are coming from further than just the city of Laurel; they're coming from all over."

On Jan. 6, the passport services office expanded its hours from three weekdays to Monday through Friday, and is now open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with hours extended to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Jan. 6 also saw the addition of passport photo services, which Piringer said helps to generate modest revenue to cover costs.

Before the city opened its passport services office more than a dozen years ago, Laurel's Main Street post office was the most convenient place for residents to get passports issued or renewed.

Laurel resident and part-time passport services agent Joan Anderson said the city opened its passport office after then-Mayor Frank Casula recognized that members of the public (particularly foreign-born residents) needed more service than the Post Office could provide, and the U.S. State Department asked the city for some passport assistance.

Passports are no longer processed at Laurel post offices.

The city's passport agents are trained and certified by the U.S. State Department and adhere strictly to State Department guidelines.

In the early days of the city's office, Anderson said she hand-delivered passport applications to Tower Federal Credit Union, Giant, Walmart and even her doctor's office to get the word out, and said she still carries passport applications in the trunk of her car for anyone who needs them.

Carreen Koubek, who manages the passport services office and the city's cable television station, said the city had processed 1,660 applications so far this fiscal year.

The extended hours on Tuesdays are usually their busiest, and Koubek helps out on Tuesday evenings as needed.

Moe attributes the increase to the "wealth of knowledge here among the people who understand the process and are able to talk to people," as well as the convenience of being able to get passport photos and copying services in the same location.

Mary Blankenship worked part-time in the passport services office for five years and became the full-time passport agent in November.

She said the job can be unsettling at times.

Among her concerns, Blankenship said, was whether children actually belonged with people claiming to be their parents. Blankenship said she's processed applications where the names of the parents didn't match their children's birth certificates exactly, and there have been times when a child's aloof behavior has made her uneasy.

Last year, she flagged three suspicious passport applications, and was recognized in a State Department passport fraud prevention report.

"We take everything they tell us at face value. We're not supposed to question or argue with them, so we don't," she said. "We just send it on to the fraud department if we're concerned, and that makes me feel better."

As a lifelong resident of Laurel, Blankenship said she enjoys meeting people through her work who have relocated to Laurel from other states. She likes finding out what brings new residents to her town and helping people out, something she considers a public service.

Places to go

Moe and Piringer said plans are in the works to renovate the front lobby to better accommodate the growing clientele.

On a recent Tuesday, the lobby was a steady stream of applicants who were required to sign in at the front window. Each applicant was issued a number and directed to fill out their applications in the lobby before being called, in turn, through the security doors to the passport services office.

The Mast family drove from Beltsville with their two children. Debbie Mast said the family was vacationing in Costa Rica in June, and that her daughter, Sara, had a trip planned to Canada.

Thomas Ngingang came from Silver Spring and said that he and his wife are headed to Cameroon.

Udaya Shrestha, who lives in Laurel, said the family doesn't travel often, but that he and his wife are looking forward to traveling to Nepal with their young son, Alex, to visit both sets of grandparents.

Laurel resident Imran Azam was born in Pakistan and said he hasn't been to the United Kingdom for 12 years, but is looking forward to visiting his sister there.

Oscar Lopez and his wife, Medaris, have lived in Laurel for 12 years. He said they were planning to send their sons — Anthony, 6, and Ryan, 5 — to visit their grandmother in Guatemala.

Also of Laurel, Noe Benitaz said he would be traveling to El Salvador with his children to visit family.

James Strickland, 20, and Jeniece Strickland, 24, said their mom, Merylyn Stickland, of Laurel, sent them in to apply for their first passports.

"We're not sure what she has in mind," Jeniece Strickland said.

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