In 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared alcoholism to be an illness. By 1980, the AMA started establishing policies on the “disease” theory, largely to secure third-party funding, which could only be done if alcoholism was categorized as a disease. Although the AMA’s position was solidified in 1987, a Supreme Court case the following year addressed the issue via the withholding of veterans’ benefits as a result of the veterans “own willful misconduct.” The majority opinion acknowledged the competing medical literature which refused to classify alcoholism as a disease and further held that the victim “bears … responsibility.” Within a short period of time, the American Hospital Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American College of Physicians all classified alcoholism as a disease. The National Institutes of Health followed suit in 2008.
This evolution of medical attitudes concerning alcoholism has spilled over into the immigration arena, where the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) excluded citizenship from drunkards on the basis that they lacked “good moral character.” This standard has never been updated despite several modifications to the INA, and the same standard is applied to cancellation of removal applicants, who are ineligible for that relief if shown to be a habitual drunkard. A driving under the influence (DUI), open container, minor in possession, or public intoxication arrest could lead to the charge that an individual is a habitual drunkard. Absent an alcohol-related criminal charge, the very first question on both naturalization and cancellation of removal applications concerning moral character is, “Have you ever been a habitual drunkard?” The Ninth Circuit decided it was time for the INA to catch up with medical opinion and recently held that alcoholism is a disease and, therefore, the “habitual drunkard” question is irrelevant to moral character and unconstitutional under the rational basis standard.
However, the treatment of alcoholism as a disease is a double-edged sword. As USCIS adjudicators, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys, and immigration judges in the Ninth Circuit now are being prevented from imputing drunkenness onto one’s character for a DUI, the Department of State (DOS) is revoking nonimmigrant visas for the same offense. Under the INA, the inadmissibility statutes include those who have a possible physical or mental disorder associated with harmful behavior. Due to the growing consensus that alcoholism is a disease and the acknowledgement that drunk driving is harmful behavior, DOS has determined that a DUI offense raises doubts about admissibility and has recently authorized consular officers to revoke nonimmigrant visas of visa holders with a DUI arrest that has occurred within the past five years, unless that arrest has already been addressed within the context of a visa application. This means that foreign nationals who are present in the United States on a nonimmigrant visa who are subsequently arrested for a DUI, or who previously had a DUI arrest but that information only now surfaced – information that calls into question the person’s continued eligibility for a visa – are at risk for visa revocation. Previously, there was no consequence of a DUI arrest subsequent to visa issuances until the time of the next visa application. Once revoked, the visa is not valid for future travel to the United States but it does not require immediate departure from the United States if the foreign national is currently present here. Revocation does not preclude reapplying for a new visa. During reapplication, consular officers will refer any nonimmigrant visa applicant with one alcohol-related arrest in the last five years or two or more in the last 10 years to a panel physician for a medical examination prior to visa issuance to rule out a medical ineligibility.