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H.R. 1614: Destigmatizing in Immigration Act


Should having too many white Russians be a reason to turn away foreigners, such as Russians?

Context

An applicant for U.S. citizenship or a green card can be disqualified for failure to exhibit good moral character. 14 acts can disqualify an applicant on these grounds, including smuggling, lying under oath, and failure to support dependents.

Another act eligible for disqualification is being a “habitual drunkard.” Previously little known, this gained increased attention in recent years with the legal case of Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, an undocumented immigrant whose attempt to cancel his removal was denied by an appeals court because he was found to be an alcoholic.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) declines about 23 percent of immigration applications, though they don’t appear to break that number down by reason for denial.

What the bill does

A new bill in Congress would remove the “habitual drunkard” reason from the disqualifying factors for the good moral character determination on the U.S. citizenship or green card application.

It was introduced in the House on March 8 as H.R. 1614, by Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA2). The bill does not appear to have an official title.

What supporters say

Supporters argue that both the habitual drunkard and low-level marijuana reasons for disqualification are products of their 1952 origins, rather than legitimate reasons in 2021 to continue turning away otherwise-worthy immigrant applicants.

“It is extremely troubling to see federal applications like this that continue to use a harsh and antiquated term such as ‘habitual drunkard,’” Rep. Boyle said in a press release. “These questions are wholly unrelated to citizenship, and only serve to reinforce societal stigmas connected to alcohol and substance abuse.”

“Moreover, prospective citizens should not be penalized for relatively harmless and non-criminal offenses,” Rep. Boyle continued. “This careless language only serves to reinforce societal stigmas and misunderstandings about substance abuse, and it is time we modernize the process.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that banning “habitual drunkards” from citizenship furthers an important government goal.

“Congress reasonably could have concluded that, because persons who regularly drink alcoholic beverages to excess pose increased risks to themselves and to others, cancellation of removal was unwarranted,” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the 2017 case Ledezma-Cosino v. Sessions. “We see nothing irrational about that legislative choice, which furthers the legitimate governmental interest in public safety.”

“Untold masses were turned away at Ellis Island — or prevented from boarding ships for America — for medical reasons, my grandfather among them,” former Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in his concurrence to the court’s decision.“This was a misfortune for those turned away, but excluding aliens for reasons Congress believes sufficient to serve the public welfare is a nigh-unquestioned power of a sovereign nation. I’m aware of no country that fails to adhere to this precept.”

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted two cosponsors, both Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

Last updated Apr 22, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Mar 8, 2021.


Destigmatizing in Immigration Act

This bill removes various immigration-related penalties pertaining to marijuana and addresses related issues.

Specifically, offenses involving marijuana use, possession, or distribution shall not be grounds for (1) barring an alien from admission into the United States, (2) removing an alien from the United States, or (3) finding that an alien lacks good moral character for immigration purposes.

An alien who was previously barred or deported due to such marijuana-related offenses shall be readmitted into the United States.

Under this bill, the distribution of marijuana shall not constitute an aggravated felony for immigration purposes.

Furthermore, the bill repeals a statutory provision stating that habitual drunkards lack good moral character for immigration purposes.