Next week my father will be 90. Born in that final Edwardian summer of 1914, he fought throughout World War II, escaped from prison camp and was wounded on the beaches of Normandy.

Five of his six children will gather in Scotland with numerous grandchildren to celebrate his birthday. I, his youngest son, will not be able to attend because the Department of Homeland Security has removed my freedom to travel.

Or to be absolutely accurate, I am free to go. But, if I do, I will not be allowed to return to my wife and children here in Washington. That's one of those choices that is not a choice at all.

Like 700,000 others, I am stuck in green-card hell.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the average waiting time for a green card has ballooned from 18 months to nearly three years. It's understandable that the Bush administration needs to do additional background checks on applicants, but in the process it is making the lives of green-card applicants a misery. More important, it's destroying a valuable opportunity to restore America's battered reputation abroad.

People who apply for green cards do so because they support the values of the United States and want to participate more fully in U.S. society. With a green card, they can travel back to their home countries. There they talk about the freedom and opportunities they have in America. They spread the gospel of the American dream among relatives and friends.

In the war of ideas that the administration is so fond of talking about, there are few better foot soldiers than green-card holders. Yet since Sept. 11, instead of encouraging those who aspire to green cards, the Department of Homeland Security has treated applicants with greater and greater suspicion.

While you wait the three years for the bureaucratic mills to grind through your application, you need a document called an "advanced parole" to travel. Like a parole from jail, an advanced parole is a small sheaf of papers adorned with stamps and circuitous language that wouldn't have looked out of place in the pouch of an 18th-century Venetian nobleman. I was warned that if I lost mine, I would not be issued a replacement. Why not? In this computer age, no document, certainly not one as mundane as this, is irreplaceable.

A while ago, I tried to get my advanced parole renewed. When it failed to materialize in the mail, I took my place at 5 a.m. in a long line outside the local office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service).

After three hours of waiting, I was finally summoned to a counter. The man behind the glass informed me that my application was being handled by the CIS office in Vermont. They could do nothing to help me in this office, he said. I asked for the phone number of the Vermont office. There is no publicly available number. I asked for the address. I would happily fly to Vermont if it meant I could see my father. "They don't allow visitors," said the man. My only resort was to send an appeal to an anonymous fax number.

The next day, my fax machine spat out the reply:

"Your request for an expedited Advanced Parole has been rejected."

And that's where I sit today.

That sort of Kafkaesque behavior is more worthy of some former Soviet satellite than a country that supposedly ranks customer service just below godliness. The CIS gets away with it because its clients are not Americans. If you are American, you never have to enter this world.

I realize that a father's 90th birthday is not the most urgent reason for travel. But why should I have to give any reason for traveling? I have done nothing wrong. Before I entered this bureaucratic labyrinth, I was free to come and go as I wished.

There will always be people willing to freeze in the pre-dawn chill outside a CIS office and be cold-shouldered by the bureaucrats inside, because however badly the Department of Homeland Security treats them, it can never be as bad as the persecution and the nightmares that they left behind.

But a lot of other applicants -- the educated and the most productive -- may well decide they've had enough. You can hardly blame them. Why should they endure such a degrading application process when there are many other countries that would welcome their talents?

To regain the respect of the world, the United States needs to demonstrate that it still possesses those qualities people have always admired: openness, freedom, tolerance. Nearly everyone in this land is the descendant of immigrants. Treating would-be immigrants of today as suspects is not going to help America win the war of ideas.

The writer is a foreign correspondent based in Washington. His e-mail address is tomcarver@mindspring.com. He will be online today at noon at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss immigrant freedom in America.