New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
New York’s Greek General Consulate has issued 1,828 Greek passports in 2018 and 1,738 in 2019. But more than 3,000 Greek passports have been issued between October 1,2020 and April 20, 2021, an overwhelming increase of more than 200 per cent.
The trend is similar in all Greek consular offices in the United States.
In Washington, D.C, in 2019 they issued 373 passports. In 2020 dispite the pandemic they issued 541 passports (+45%) and so far in 2021, 350 passports.
In Boston, Massachusetts, in 2020 they received 821 applications and they issued 597 passports. While during the first quarter of 2020 there were 155 applications, in 2021 (until 3/13) 289 applications have been received. The passports issued during the first quarter of 2020 were 121, compared to the 346 in the first quarter of 2021 (until 3/16).
While it is keeping up with this wave, the Consulate General of Greece in New York, as the first consular authority in the world that is using artificial intelligence technology,can reach unprecedented new efficiency in a matter of months. Consul General Koutras is strongly supported in the implementation of digital technology to benefit this most important segment of the omogeneia by Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Minister of State and Digital Governance, Kyriakos Pierrakakis and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias.
The GN asked Consul General Koutras to explain the phenomenal increase in Greek passport applications, the operations behind processing applications, the advantages of a Greek passport, and his vision.
GN: A wave of Greek passport and citizenship applications has livened up the “same-old” feeling of the pandemic. What is the reason for this surge?
KK: There are several reasons for this, but I think the most crucial one is the fact that until yesterday, April 20, our compatriots were not allowed to travel to Greece without having a Greek or European passport. Until yesterday, US passport holders or those with permanent residence in the US were not allowed to travel to Europe. There was a travel ban. That made the life of our compatriots very difficult, and I think this is one of the main reasons there is great interest in getting Greek passports. The Greek passport is a European passport and has all the advantages of a European passport, with the addition of the feeling of pride a Greek passport brings. On April 20 Greece decided to open the country for US passport holders, for US citizens, and US permanent residents…not for Europe.
GN: I hope this means there will be a good tourist season.
KK: This would be a very good start for a positive impact on the tourist industry. About half an hour before the announcement of the lifting of the travel ban, the Prime Minister announced the time plan for opening the country, which is as follows: The restaurants will open on Monday, May 3rd, the day after the celebration of Pascha, of course, with all the precautions still in place—temperature check, social distancing of people and tables, etc. The tourism industry is opening completely, again, with all precautions in place on Saturday, May 15.
GN: Has there also been a surge in Greek Americans seeking Greek citizenship?
KK: Even more. On a regular basis, our Registry Department receives approximately one hundred applications per day for Greek citizenship. But the process for obtaining Greek citizenship is not as simple as the process for
obtaining a passport. It takes a lot of time, at least one year, because the legislation is strict and a little bit complicated.
An additional difficulty can also surface. Painfully, it was discovered during the pandemic that some of our compatriots had forgotten to register vital records of events that took place in their lives here, such as marriage and birth certificates, in Greece. Thus, their children and grandchildren are not Greek citizens, so not entitled to get Greek passports. We are starting from the beginning, making all these registrations. The flow is amazing, and it’s so important, because it shows the love of Greeks from all over the world for their motherland.
This wave is happening all over the globe because we have a diaspora of Greeks around the world, not just in the United States… Canada, South Africa, South America, Europe…everywhere. All these applications, all this paperwork, is going to a center, το Ειδικό Δημαρχειο in Athens, where thousands of people are waiting with applications.
GN: Do you think that most of the people are getting citizenship and passports for practical reasons?
CGK: No, no, it’s emotional, and it’s practical; the majority of the people, hadn’t realized that they weren’t Greek citizens, they thought it happened automatically. And other important factors play a role. First, the Greeks are very proud of how the Greek government and people succeeded in combatting the first wave of the pandemic; Greece was among the first countries in Europe, and the globe, and still is.
Second, teleworking has surfaced during the pandemic; you could be in your home right now or in Mykonos and be making this ZOOM interview. So, we have hundreds, even thousands of cases of Greek American—university students, people in finance, etc.—now working in Greece, offering their services in the United States. If you have a US passport, you are allowed to stay in the Schengen Area only 90 days; if you have a Greek passport, you are allowed to stay as long as you wish. This is a crucial factor in the surge.
Third, the Greek government has given the right to Greek citizens to vote from their country of residence. All in all, there is now great interest in the motherland. That makes us very proud.
GN: Please talk about the impressive development at the Consulate, the great services that are to follow.
KK: We are not a 100% “e-consulate” yet, but we are trying to do almost everything in a digital way. We cannot do that for your passport, for instance, because that requires getting a fingerprint, but all the other issues at the Registry Department are being done electronically. If you go to the website, either through our digital assistant or through the classic website, you download tailor-made instructions for what papers you need to submit, and then send us all the paperwork. We examine the digital file to assess all necessary papers. When you have all the documentation ready you get an appointment you come in, sign, pay the fees, and your papers go directly to Athens to start the procedure for citizenship.
Our people are working seven days a week doing that. It is humanly impossible to deal with 100 applications per day with the number of people we currently have at the Consulate. With the number of applications we have, even if I had 50 people working in the Registry Department every day, it would be difficult.
GN: Is New York the Consulate’s only territory?
KK: The Consulate General in New York is responsible for other states, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey. Since we are a bigger consulate and our capacity is larger than, for example, the consulate in Tampa, we are receiving some requests from Greek Americans residing elsewhere in the US, and we’re trying to accommodate them, helping them get their passports.
GN: Is there a way people who are applying for citizenship and passports can lessen the stress on the Consulate?
CGK: The simplest ways are to be punctual for appointments and not to call the Consulate, as it interrupts the rhythm of our personal assistance to those we are helping. Instead, on our completely new website, a digital intelligence virtual assistant that can answer any question is at your service twenty-four hours a day.
GN: Please talk about that impressive development. the great artificial intelligence technology expediencies that are to follow at the Consulate.
CGK: Ours is the first Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the world to do this, and the Consulate in New York is the first consular authority in the world that is using artificial intelligence technology. Under the instruction of the Prime Minister, we are going to expand this service to all consular authorities in the USA and in the world.
And—this is more important—we are going to develop this platform to a platform not only of communication between the consulate and the people, but also a platform to receive the applications.
An example of the process of registering a vital record in Greece with this extended version will be: Say who you are and what you want to do. The virtual assistant will ask, “Would you like to proceed and submit your documentation?” You say yes and give your Greek TAXISnet codes. The system identifies you, we get all your records from Greece, confirming your identity. You upload your documentation; we receive it and send your requested certificate within minutes.
Hopefully, the extended version will be ready by September of this year. I’ll give an example of someone who is not a Greek citizen but whose parents are obtaining a passport under the extended version. You will bring to the Consulate your parents’ marriage certificate and your birth certificate…you can take your parents’ nationality and citizenship. You go up to our 4th floor, sign the paper for Greek citizenship, and the employee will register that immediately in your municipality in Greece. By the time you are back down on the 1st floor, the system has already registered you and you are going to apply for your new Greek passport. This is my vision. That will be a revolution!