I moved to the United States from Israel to follow a girl. What started as a cross-Atlantic summer crush in 2011 evolved to a marriage and family. I never expected to immigrate to the United States, but this fall I started working on my naturalization forms on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.

Applying for any U.S. visa, let alone naturalization, is scary. The forms are long and burdensome and the fees are significant. You feel small in front of a giant and unforgiving bureaucracy. You are asking the world’s strongest superpower to accept you first as a guest, and eventually as one of its own.

It is that much scarier when a significant portion of the application measures your “moral character.”

When I started the paperwork a few weeks ago, I was prepared for the question about whether I was ever associated with the Communist Party. I remembered it from my Green Card application, something I chalked up to the process being archaic — the form hasn’t been updated since the 1950s. But another question — emphasis is theirs — caught me off guard:

Have you EVER been a habitual drunkard?

One of the questions on the naturalization application is "have you ever been a habitual drunkard"? It's part of the moral character section.
Screenshot
One of the questions on the naturalization application is "have you ever been a habitual drunkard"? It's part of the moral character section.

During my Green Card application in 2014, I found the line of questioning on drug and alcohol use, and the entire concept of a medical checkup, off-putting.

Like the U.S. knowledge test for citizenship, which is expensive, discriminatory, and just got much harder to pass thanks to Donald Trump, every step of the immigration process is a reminder that the system is meant to exclude based on a smorgasbord of moral panics aggregated over a century. There is opportunity for change. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to overhaul the immigration system and, in discussing his son Hunter’s addiction, has shown compassion and recognition that drug use is not a moral failing. It’s time to delete questions about drug and alcohol use on immigration applications.

Red scare and moral character

I recently learned — from Cornell University M.D./Ph.D. student Tanmoy Lala Das — that the USCIS policy on addiction reads: “Applicants who are found to be drug abusers or addicts are inadmissible.”

Why is the fear of “habitual drunkards” and “drug abusers or addicts” a yardstick for immigration outcomes, particularly in an era when platitudes such as “addiction is a disease” purportedly recognize that these people aren’t moral failures?

I reached out to Asad L. Asad, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, to understand how this question came to be. I told him I found the Green Card medical exam and the language of “moral character” very outdated.

“Your intuition that they feel very 1950s is correct,” Asad told me, explaining that the answer dates back to 1950s legislation. “This law provided the first real — but still vague — definition of good moral character in the context of citizenship.” Asad says that instead of defining good moral character, lawmakers defined the exact opposite — what wasn’t deemed “good.”

He went on to say: “That’s how we get the list of ‘habitual drunkards’ alongside adulterers, polygamists, and ‘gambling addicts.’”

Asad is referring to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It states that “no person shall be regarded as, or found to be, a person of good moral character who” is a habitual drunkard or committed adultery. It also includes an entire section titled “Prohibition upon the naturalization of persons opposed to government or law, or who favor totalitarian forms of government.”

It’s hard to overstate the hypocrisy of the “moral character” section of the naturalization application. The spiritual father of the era’s restrictionist legislation, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, himself was infamous for drinking and in 1957 died from liver disease, likely an outcome of his alcohol addiction. McCarthy also had an opioid addiction and was supplied pills from America’s first de facto “drug czar,” Harry Anslinger. McCarthy, hardly a puritan, voted in favor of the 1952 bill.

The Immigration and Nationality Act was eventually amended in 1990 to allow people of all political beliefs to apply for Green Cards.

But the policy on addiction and language on “habitual drunkard” was never repealed.

American politician Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, testifies against the U.S. Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings, Washington, D.C., June 9, 1954.
Hulton Archive / MCT
American politician Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, testifies against the U.S. Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings, Washington, D.C., June 9, 1954.

What does “habitual drunkard” even mean?

Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, a citizen of Mexico who lived as an undocumented immigrant in the United States for 30 years with his wife and eight children (five of whom are American citizens), was arrested in 2008 for driving under the influence in Carlsbad, Calif. Because of his status he faced deportation. The petition to prevent his deportation was denied because he “lacked good moral character due to his alcoholism diagnosis.” In other words, Ledezma-Cosino violated the “habitual drunkard” provision.

Ledezma-Cosino appealed the ruling, and judges in the Ninth Circuit originally ruled that the “habitual drunkard” restriction lacked rational basis. The judges wrote that “classifying alcoholics as evil people, rather than individuals suffering from a disease, is neither rational nor consistent with our fundamental values.” But when the issue went in front of the whole court, the entire Ninth Circuit couldn’t come to agreement. A plurality of judges agreed that while the “habitual drunkard” label might be “unfortunate, outdated, or inaccurate,” it is not a constitutional issue.

Throughout the proceedings, judges defined “habitual drunkard” in four different ways: a person with chronic alcohol use disorder, one who regularly drinks in excess, a person who can’t control their actions while they drink, and finally, someone who harms others while they drink.

Ledezma-Cosino appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to rule if the vagueness of the phrase renders it unconstitutional. The court refused to hear the case.

If federal judges can’t agree on a definition for “habitual drunkard,” how are applicants for naturalization expected to answer the question?

A simple fix

The “habitual drunkard” provision is not the most pressing issue in the immigration system while children are detained at the border and DREAMers still don’t have a permanent solution, to name a few. But for people like Ledezma-Cosino the archaic language was life-altering in the worst way possible.

Even if the “habitual drunkard” question and addiction section of the Green Card medical requirement are not mass drivers of denied admissions, they are still problematic.

With suicide, alcohol-related liver disease, and overdose deaths so common in America that they reduce overall life expectancy, the United States has to change its tune on alcohol and drug use. Signaling to the world that people suffering from a substance-use disorder are not welcome in this country is a slap in the face to the millions suffering at home — and a signal to other countries that addiction is a moral failing.

Under the Statue of Liberty, the words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are engraved. “Give me your sober” is not. Luckily the “moral character” section of immigration law is not engraved in stone but written in ink — and can be crossed out.