April 16, 2020
Facing Unprecedented Challenge, State Department Brings 61,000 Americans Home
By: U.S. Senator Jim Risch and U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul
Every year, an estimated 83 million Americans travel to a foreign country. Whether their travel is for work, pleasure, or a mission to help vulnerable people, they rarely have reason to feel uncertain about their return home.
However, as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the world, many Americans suddenly found themselves trapped abroad as governments around the globe placed immediate restrictions on travel into and out of their countries and airports shut down overnight.
Just like the many businesses suddenly forced to shut down their regular operations, the State Department faced an unprecedented challenge overnight: to bring home tens of thousands of American citizens trapped in every region of the world in the middle of a pandemic.
The State Department has risen to the occasion, activating one of the largest diplomatic missions in its history. In consultation with the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, the Department has implemented procedures to help repatriate as many Americans as possible as quickly as possible. The Department established a task force that has worked in shifts – often 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to help facilitate this unprecedented effort. This includes moving Americans trapped in remote locations to regional hubs so they are close to an airport and ready for take-off.
In addition, the State Department has engaged in multifaceted negotiations with both foreign governments and airlines to open air space and mobilize more commercial carriers. Where additional obstacles have emerged, the State Department has dispatched Emergency Assistance Teams to reinforce operations on the ground.
This round the clock effort is working. As of today, the State Department has successfully brought home more than 61,000 Americans from 106 countries on 567 flights. This includes Americans from our home states of Texas and Idaho.
For example, when dozens of Texans were stuck in remote Peruvian villages after the country completely shut down international travel, the State Department assigned an extra, full-time team to coordinate and facilitate their travel home. Nearly 20 hours from the closest airport and with no means of transportation themselves, the State Department chartered buses to transport them to Lima and ultimately used a U.S.-operated military hangar to help bring the Americans safely home. And when a group of 16 high school students from Texas, on a mission trip in Roatan, Honduras, thought they would be stranded until May after the Honduran government closed the border, the State Department helped ensure they were safely reunited with their families within a week of the travel shut down.
A number of Idahoans too faced a dire situation as other countries shut down their borders with little or no warning. From South America, to the Middle East, and across the continent of Africa, many Idahoans abroad were suddenly plunged into overwhelming uncertainty as they faced a lockdown in a nation that was unfamiliar to them. As these travelers grappled with the reality of navigating a pandemic thousands of miles away from home, our diplomats made every effort to maintain open communication, and in the cases of many Idahoans, a personal connection, working with foreign governments and partners to get people home.
Most Americans don’t usually see the State Department at work, much less experience firsthand the outstanding work of our diplomats abroad. This virus is unprecedented in size and scope. Instead of conducting an evacuation from a single country, they had to orchestrate more than 100 evacuations simultaneously. For this reason, the State Department is front and center for hundreds of thousands of Americans who, like us, thank them for their unwavering support to getting every American home.