Court Bars Immigration Law from Discriminating against “Habitual Drunkards”


A federal appeals court Thursday struck down part of an immigration law which impeded the deferment of an undocumented immigrant if he was a “habitual drunkard,” which would place him in poor moral standing.

The law itself allows the attorney general to cancel the deportation of a non-citizen or allow the person to depart voluntarily if that person has good moral character. The law deems a person immoral if he or she participated in genocide or torture, has been convicted of a serious felony or gambling offenses, or is a habitual drunkard.

“Is it rational for the government to find that people with chronic alcoholism are morally bad people solely because of their disease? The answer is no.” Wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt. Reinhardt also added: “A statute targeting people who habitually and excessively drink alcohol is, in effect, targeting individuals with chronic alcoholism.”

“The theory that alcoholics are blameworthy because they could simply try harder to recover is an old trope not supported by the medical literature,” Reinhardt wrote. “Rather, the inability to stop drinking is a function of the underlying ailment.”

Reinhardt and the majority of the court held that the federal law linking drunkenness with poor moral character is a violation of the equal-protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.

The law was brought to the court through the detainment of Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, a Mexican citizen who entered the U.S. in 1997 and has been held in legal limbo due to being deemed a habitual drunkard, even though he was eventually able to quit drinking. Should the court’s decision not be appealed, Ledezma-Cosino would be allowed to remain in the country or at least leave willingly.

The dissent, written by Judge Richard R. Clifton, claimed that the court applied the wrong legal standard. He also stated that: “If chronic alcoholics really had no ability to control their conduct, then such individuals would never be able to stop drinking.  We know that is not the case, as Ledezma himself laudably demonstrated. Chronic alcoholics do not have to be habitual drunkards.”