An immigrant’s admission to prior marijuana use could no longer be used to deny them U.S. citizenship under a new congressional bill.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) filed the legislation on Monday. It addresses a part of federal immigration policy that concerns establishing “good moral character” as part of a naturalization application.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a person who admits to using cannabis—even in compliance with state law—is morally unfit for citizenship. The agency clarified that position in a 2019 memo, adding that employment in a state-legal marijuana market is another factor that could impact a person’s immigration status.
The congressman’s bill, which was first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, specifically carves out an exemption for applicants who admit to having used, possessed or distributed cannabis. It would also remove another stigmatizing question—“Have you ever been a habitual drunkard?”—from the naturalization form.
“These questions are wholly unrelated to citizenship,” Boyle said in a press release. “It is extremely troubling to see federal applications like this that continue to use a harsh and antiquated term such as ‘habitual drunkard.'”
“Moreover, prospective citizens should not be penalized for relatively harmless and non-criminal offenses,” he added. “This careless language only serves to reinforce societal stigmas and misunderstandings about substance abuse, and it is time we modernize the process.”
Immigrants who have been denied visas or deported due only to a cannabis-related offense would be allowed to reapply or having their documents reinstated under the bill, which has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
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While the federal policy deeming marijuana use a violation of “good moral character” standards for immigration purposes was already on the books, the proliferation of state-level legalization seems to be behind the 2019 update from USCIS, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Schedule I substances have no accepted medical use pursuant to the [Controlled Substances Act],” the agency said. “Classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law means that certain conduct involving marijuana, which is in violation of the CSA, continues to constitute a conditional bar to [good moral character] for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law.”
The underlying code currently provides an exception for “a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.” Boyle’s proposal would strike that language and replace it with a general exemption for “offenses involving the use, possession, or distribution of marijuana.”
Advocates and lawmakers have widely criticized the immigration policy.
In June 2019, a coalition of 10 senators sent a letter to the head of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security calling for a rule change to permit people working in state-legal markets to gain citizenship.
The letter echoes points made in a separate message sent by a bipartisan group of 43 House members earlier that year. In that letter, the group called the USCIS guidance “fatally flawed, as it provides no cogent basis for the agency’s apparent conclusion that lawful employment in a state-licensed industry could be treated as a negative factor in establishing good moral character and places a negative burden upon the individuals against a non-existent discretionary element.”
Read the congressman’s bill on marijuana and immigration policy below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.