At a time when immigration controversies are in the forefront of many people's minds and endless debated in the media, it can sometimes be difficult to keep touch of the human cost of these laws. There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., often without access to legal employment and social services.
They must live every day flying under the radar, uncertain of their future and fearful of being caught, even while trying to build a better life. In their quest to attempt to become legal residents, they must must navigate a complex and byzantine series of bureaucratic systems. One badly needed attempt at reforming these laws and structures was offered in a federal appeals court, to benefit an immigrant facing deportation due to addiction.
When immigrants face deportation, there are a number of things said to reflect criminal or immoral behavior that can prevent a board from approving their right to stay in their new home, including participation in genocide or torture, or committing a serious felony. Among these list of offensiveness was being a "habitual drunkard."
This law was based around old understandings of heavy drinkers as people lacking the will to change. This was the primary reason why Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, a Mexican national was facing deportation. He has eight children, five of whom are U.S. citizens, and supports them through working in the construction industry. He also has consumed around a liter of tequila every day for 10 years, developing acute hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
On March 24, 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, in a 2-1 decision, declared the law outdated, discriminatory, and rejected because of its horrifying implications. The court pointed to evidence that alcoholism is a disease and a medical condition, not evidence of bad character.
A medical condition is not grounds for denying relief from deportation, and so that part of the law has been changed. Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that "The theory that alcoholics are blameworthy because they could simply try harder to recover is an old trope not supported by the medical literature."
It is a well-known consensus among recovery experts that alcoholism, as with other forms of addiction, should be understood as a disease and a medical condition needing treatment, not as evidence that someone is immoral or weak-willed. As early as the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s, people have recognized that the popular view that alcoholics simply needed more willpower to control their drinking is neither scientifically accurate nor helpful in treating anyone.
Since then, scientific research into genetics and neurobiology has definitively proven that certain people, through no fault of their own, are powerless to drink in moderation. It is estimated that 50 percent of alcoholism is created through genets, and the other half through your environment, exposure, and mental health.
Approaches to treatment that view alcoholism primarily as a moral failing are stigmatizing and shaming, and therefore often push the drinker to feel discouraged and give up hope. Recovery must instead be based in compassion for the person suffering with alcoholism, recognizing that recovery requires a total transformation of lifestyle, and can't be done without help.
This is why punitive approaches to addiction, that seek to suppress it through punishment have been counterproductive at creating real change. Many people in the justice community are recognizing the need for new laws the reflect this reality of a compassionate approach as the best way to combat substance abuse and addiction. This change in immigration law is a step in the right direction.
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