Ninth Circuit Will Reconsider Whether Alcoholism is a Bar to Immigration Benefits
October 14th, 2016
Contributor: Susan E. Hill
On October 12, 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to re-hear a case decided earlier this year, Ledezma-Cosino v. Lynch, No. 12-73289 (March 24, 2016). In the earlier decision, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that alcoholism cannot be equated with the bad moral character element of “habitual drunkard,” because it is a medical disability. The Court noted that alcoholism long has been recognized as a medical condition, dating back to at least 1968. Therefore, it is not rational to link alcoholism to a person’s moral character.
The Ledezma Court’s conclusion followed the Constitutional guarantees of the Equal Protection clause, which also applies to the class of non-citizens. The Equal Protection clause requires that all persons who are similarly situated be treated alike. The government cannot pick and choose among the class of noncitizens and treat members differently, unless the treatment is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.
The government was not rational to blame alcoholics for lacking motivation to overcome their disease. Otherwise, disproportionate numbers of military veterans, Native Americans and the homeless population—those battling alcoholism—would have bad moral character. Furthermore, our understanding of alcoholism has changed over time, much like how we view those with mental illness or those who are homosexual.
Judge Clifton wrote a dissent, arguing that that the bad moral character of “habitual drunkard” could occur under free will. He also urged that there was a rational basis to deny immigration benefits to those who threaten or burden our institutions of public safety. Finally, he asserted that the government nonetheless has the power to exclude noncitizens for other medical reasons, and that the Court never should have raised this issue in the first place.
This case is set to be re-heard by a larger panel of Judges. The new rehearing decision potentially will clarify Constitutional issues over the government’s power and authority to exclude noncitizens, as well as procedural issues over how arguments and issues can be raised and addressed within the Ninth Circuit. This again underscores the skill and knowledge an attorney needs toward when and how to raise all important issues in a case, both at the Board of Immigration Appeals and in briefings before the Circuit Courts of Appeal.