Who among us has not filed a paper late? There are consequences: a lower grade on a paper in school, a few days of interest on a utility bill, some other small penalty.

Few people can claim that their entire life has been put on hold for want of a timely filing of a document. One person who can is named Fuqiang Xiao.

Meet Xiao, a U.S. permanent resident. His wife has a green card and lives in Maryland. His daughter is a U.S. citizen. I know Xiao because he is married to my baby sitter, who pays a steady stream of taxes to the federal and Maryland state governments.

Xiao is in America now and wants to return to China to see his elderly parents. What stands between Xiao and China is neither poverty nor wrongdoing. He has the resources to return to China, and he has done nothing wrong in either America or China. Yet, for bureaucratic reasons, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, won't let Xiao leave. First, he must have a Justice Department hearing.

Xiao arrived in Washington from China on Sept. 5. He was told at Washington Dulles International Airport that his re-entry form was filed after he left America in June 2010, rather than before, as is required. For this infraction, Xiao's passport was taken away, along with his green card. He was ordered to appear before an immigration judge, but he has no idea when this will happen. For almost four months, he has been in limbo, unable to work in America because he has no green card and unable to return to China because his passport was seized.

Xiao visited immigration authorities at the airport, where he was told to go to Arlington. He went to Arlington, where he was told to go to Baltimore. He went to Baltimore, where he was told he had to wait until he received a letter telling him when his case would be heard. He got a lawyer, who told him there was nothing to be done, except to wait.

According to a report by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, the average wait time for an immigration case decision was 525 days in the year ended Oct. 31. Chinese citizens had an average wait time of 786 days.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Public Affairs did not respond to my inquiry about wait times for immigration hearings.

Meanwhile, Xiao's parents in Baoding, China, are in their 80s. His father is in hospital on a feeding tube. Xiao needs to go back and look after them.

If Xiao were to go to the Chinese consulate and get a new passport and leave, he would lose his green card and his ability to see his wife and daughter.

Everyone agrees America's immigration system is broken. Our immigration system often seems all too eager to force people to leave America who want to stay. Some politicians want to send home millions of highly productive people home because they lack full documentation. Others want to send away international students when they graduate, even though they are some of the brightest math and science graduates our universities produce. It makes no sense.

We also make it difficult for entrepreneurs and tourists to get visas, so they go to Canada or Singapore instead.

But the problems with our immigration system are not limited to our propensity to force people to leave. Inexplicably, we trap legal immigrants here for months on end when they want to leave, with no means of support and no end in sight. Just ask Fuqiang Xiao.

Examiner Columnist Diana Furchtgott-Roth (dfr@manhattan-institute.org), former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.