Addiction Informed Immigration Reform

85 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2019 Last revised: 25 Feb 2021

See all articles by Rebecca Sharpless

Rebecca Sharpless

University of Miami - School of Law

Date Written: July 1, 2019


Immigration law fails to align with the contemporary understanding of substance addiction as a medical condition. The Immigration and Nationality Act regards noncitizens who suffer from drug or alcohol substance use disorder as immoral and undesirable. Addiction is a ground of exclusion and deportation and can prevent the finding of “good moral character” needed for certain immigration applications. Substance use disorder can lead to criminal behavior that lands noncitizens, including lawful permanent residents, in removal proceedings with no defense. The time has come for immigration law to catch up to today’s understanding of addiction. The damage done by failing to contemporize the law extends beyond the harms of unwarranted family separation due to the deportation or exclusion of people who suffer from substance use disorder. Holding noncitizens to an archaic standard threatens our civic and political identity as a diverse and democratic country. The bigger the gap between contemporary mores and immigration law and policy, the harder it is for U.S. citizens to develop a civic and political identity that is free of ethnic and racial animus. Double standards for citizens and noncitizens create cognitive dissonance, leaving society vulnerable to discriminatory or stereotypical views to justify the differential treatment. This phenomenon not only harms noncitizens but thwarts the formation of a national civic and political identity free of ethnic and racial bias. This Article proposes and explains the legislative reforms necessary to remedy the current state of immigration law’s treatment of substance use disorder.

Keywords: immigration, opiod crisis, addiction, substance abuse, immigration reform, DSM

JEL Classification: K37

Suggested Citation

Sharpless, Rebecca A., Addiction Informed Immigration Reform (July 1, 2019). Washington Law Review, Vol. 94, No. 4 (2019), Available at SSRN:

Rebecca A. Sharpless (Contact Author)

University of Miami - School of Law ( email )

1311 Miller Drive
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States

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