Appeals court rules against immigration law linking alcoholism to low morals

A federal appeals court has ruled that an immigration law provision that essentially precludes anyone considered a “habitual drunkard” from challenging deportation is unconstitutional.

With one judge dissenting, a three-judge panel said the provision, which dates back about a half-century, unfairly and inaccurately brands people who are alcoholics with being morally bankrupt.

“Is it rational for the government to find that people with chronic alcoholism are morally bad people solely because of their disease?” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt for the majority of the panel representing the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to The Los Angeles Times. “The answer is no.”

The ruling noted that alcoholism is a medical condition, not an aspect of moral character.

“A statute targeting people who habitually and excessively drink alcohol is, in effect, targeting individuals with chronic alcoholism,” Reinhardt wrote.

One example of a person trapped in the crosshairs of the antiquated law is Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, a Mexican citizen who entered the U.S. in 1997, according to the Times.

Ledezma-Cosino was classified a “habitual drunkard.”

The Times said that his medical records show that he drank about a liter of tequila every day for a decade. He suffers many health problems as a result, including cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism, hepatitis, and has at least one drunk driving conviction.

Ledezma-Cosino, however, has five U.S.-citizen children, and has supported his family, which includes three other children, with construction work, the court noted.

The panel said that labeling a drinking problem with moral character is in violation of the equal-protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.

“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.”

Judge Richard R. Clifton, who dissented, said that someone who drinks excessively can also act on free will.

Clifton used Ledezma-Cosino as an example, saying that he had quit drinking.

“If chronic alcoholics really had no ability to control their conduct, then such individuals would never be able to stop drinking,” wrote Clifton, according to The Times. “We know that is not the case, as Ledezma himself laudably demonstrated. Chronic alcoholics do not have to be habitual drunkards.”

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