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PolitiFact FL: Why do Americans have to pay for a State Department evacuation from Israel? It’s the law

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make statements to the media.
Jacquelyn Martin
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make statements to the media after their meeting in Tel Aviv, Thursday Oct. 12, 2023.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

As thousands of Americans try to flee Israel amid a war, the State Department has offered U.S. citizens the opportunity to get a chartered flight — if they pay.

Many commercial airlines canceled flights to and from Israel after it was attacked by Hamas, leaving tens of thousands of Americans in the country with few options to evacuate. Hundreds of Americans also are stuck in Gaza.

The State Department said Oct. 12 that it would charter flights out of Israel to Europe, and the U.S. Embassy in Israel said citizens will be "asked to sign an agreement to repay the U.S. government prior to departure."

Critics of the Biden administration were angered that Americans will need to pay their own way.

But Brian Krassenstein, a left-wing commentator, said Biden’s agencies are following a policy set decades ago. He responded to a critical X post with this message:

"FACT Check: Conservatives are attacking Biden saying he's requiring Americans Trapped in Israel, who want to leave, sign a promissory note to repay costs? FACTS: This has been US policy for at least 79 years!"

Krassenstein said the promissory note policy, known as a form DS-5528, goes "back to at least 1944."

We researched the policy’s origins and found it predates Biden’s administration by decades. The policy was used in World War II and became law 67 years ago.

At some points in history, American evacuees did not end up paying the transportation costs, but it’s unclear whether the requirement will be lifted for people leaving Israel now.

U.S. law has required reimbursement since 1956

We found a telegram Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent in August 1944 to the American Legion in Stockholm, Sweden, about Americans who had been evacuated.

The telegram refers to 92 people and says adults "should be required to sign a promissory note" for the cost of transportation to Stockholm from Helsinki, Finland. It says children should be charged a half-fare.

Screenshot of telegram from Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Screenshot of telegram from Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

We could not determine when this policy started or why it became a law in 1956. The law requires U.S. citizens to reimburse the federal government for evacuation when their lives are endangered by war, civil unrest or natural disaster.

The State Department website says people evacuated on U.S. government-coordinated transport must sign an Evacuee Manifest and Promissory Note (form DS-5528) before they leave.

The form says the travelers know they will be billed for the cost. Payment is due within 30 days, but citizens can pay in installments, given State Department approval.

The State Department’s website explains, "U.S. law requires that departure assistance to private U.S. citizens or third country nationals be provided ‘on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable.’"

The law has been cited, and sometimes waived, during many past overseas crises

Searching news reports, we found multiple past examples of the law being cited. Sometimes, the repayment requirement was waived.

  • In 1989, the U.S. Embassy evacuated 282 Americans from El Salvador on chartered flights "after as many as nine U.S. officials and their families spent a harrowing night pinned in their homes by cross fire and rebel raids," the Miami Herald reported. "The evacuation was the first in 10 years of civil war." The embassy paid for flights of its staff and dependents, and asked other Americans to sign a $500 promissory note.
  • In 1990, a two-paragraph brief in the Los Angeles Times said the U.S. government would pay the costs of evacuating American citizens from Iraq and Kuwait. An unnamed government official told the Times that some officials may have asked evacuees to sign promissory notes covering airfares, but that was contrary to the George H.W. Bush administration’s policy.
  • In July 2006, when the State Department was evacuating U.S. citizens out of Lebanon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., called on the State Department to not charge U.S. citizens. The department dropped plans to seek reimbursement.
  • In February 2011 amid a revolt in Libya, the American embassy in Libya used a ferry to evacuate Americans to Malta. Reports by CNN and The Associated Press said the evacuees would be required to reimburse the government.
  • In 2021, the State Department initially said it would charge U.S. citizens $2,000to evacuate from Afghanistan, but it backtracked.

During the COVID-19 pandemic’s early months, some lawmakers introduced legislation seeking to amend the law. Some bills called for waiving the reimbursement requirement if it was related to COVID-19. The bills did not reach a vote.

PolitiFact asked the White House whether the Biden administration is considering lifting the requirement for reimbursement but received no immediate response. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby announced plans Oct. 12 to have chartered flights but did not share any details.

CBS reported that flights would begin Oct. 13 from Tel Aviv to Athens, Greece, or Frankfurt, Germany, and ships would leave Haifa, Israel, and travel to Cyprus.

Our ruling

Krassenstein said it "has been US policy for at least 79 years" to require Americans who intend to be evacuated from overseas to sign a promissory note.

In August 1944, a telegram from the U.S. secretary of state said American adults who had been evacuated in Europe during World War II "should be required to sign a promissory note" for the cost of transportation. This policy became law in 1956.

The 1956 law has been cited for decades when Republican and Democratic administrations have evacuated Americans during war or conflicts.

We rate this statement True.

RELATED: Read all of our Israel-Gaza coverage

PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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