Can a Recovering Drug Addict Get a U.S. Visa or Green Card?

A foreign-born person who is in remission for drug addiction is actually admissible to the United States, though drug abusers and addicts are not.

By , Attorney · University of Cincinnati College of Law

In U.S. immigration law, there are some people who are not eligible for a green card or to apply for a visa. This is called being inadmissible to the United States. One common way a person becomes inadmissible is by committing a crime. However, another thing that can prevent someone from getting a visa or a green card is when the are, or have been, a drug addict or abuser. (See Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, or I.N.A. and How Health Issues Can Make You Inadmissible to the U.S.)

Many types of inadmissibility allow someone to apply for a "waiver," or legal forgiveness, in order to continue with the immigration case. No waiver is available for a person who is currently a drug addict or abuser.

Nevertheless, someone in remission is actually admissible to the United States. The law divides the condition into two categories: a ‘class A' medical condition and a ‘class B' medical condition. Current drug abusers or addicts who have a class A medical condition cannot come to the United States. But a drug addict or abuser who is in remission has a class B medical condition and is thus still eligible to apply for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) or visa.

Drug Abuse or Addiction Mean Regular Use and Dependency

Drug abuse or addiction does not, under U.S. immigration law, describe one-time use. The U.S. government uses the definition of drug abuse and addiction that is found in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is an authoritative manual published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

There are numerous factors that a psychiatrist or doctor can use to determine whether or not someone is a drug abuser or addict, such as regular use and cravings. The only difference, according to the government, between drug abuse and drug addiction is that addiction is more severe.

You might be wondering how the U.S. government will know if a person is a drug addict or abuser. It can find out in a variety of ways. First, an applicant for a visa or green card often has to get a medical examination. The exam includes questions about drug use and history, and the doctor may test for drugs in some situations.

An immigration officer can also determine that a person has a drug issue at the interview. If the officer thinks that the drug issue was not covered adequately in the medical examination, the officer can ask for a re-examination.

A Drug Addict or Abuser Is Considered in Remission After One Year of Sobriety

Once a drug issue has been identified, either by the doctor or by the immigration officer, the applicant must prove remission in order to be allowed to continue with the visa or green card application. A drug addict or abuser is admissible to the U.S. only if that person is in remission.

According to the U.S. government, remission must be full and sustained, meaning that the applicant must have not used the substance or engaged in any related behaviors for a period of at least 12 months—and maybe longer, depending on the medical analysis in an individual case. (See the CDC's guidelines for civil surgeons, and the USCIS Policy Manual Chapter 8, Drug Abuse or Drug Addiction.) Cravings don't count against the person.

The remission and lack of associated harmful behavior must be proven with objective evidence, such as proof of rehab, a treatment program, or probation check-ins. An officer may choose to count days of sobriety starting from after a person's release from a treatment facility, so it is best to have at least 12 months post-rehab before getting a medical examination.

Marijuana Is Among the Drugs That Lead to Inadmissibility

Although several state governments have legalized marijuana or cannabis or certain of its derivatives, the federal government still considers it to be an illegal drug. (Read more in Will Legal Use of Marijuana Make Applicant for Immigration Benefits Inadmissible?.)

For now, therefore, visa applicants can be found inadmissible based on addiction to cannabis, and will have to prove sustained remission in order to be overcome this.

Be Careful About Admitting to Drug Possession or Sale

U.S. immigration laws allow an officer to find an applicant inadmissible based on a crime if they admit to the essential elements of that crime. Sometimes admitting to drug possession can be sufficient to trigger this particular ground of inadmissibility (committing a controlled substance offense).

Additionally, any admission of selling drugs or giving them to a third party can trigger a permanent ground of inadmissibility as a drug trafficker. The U.S. government can find that a person is a drug trafficker even if the person has never been convicted of selling drugs.

Prepare Your Immigration Application Well If You Have a History of Drug Abuse or Addiction

Having a history of drug abuse or addiction does not mean that you cannot succeed in your immigration case. However, it does mean that you should prepare carefully. For example, an applicant with a past history of drug abuse or addiction should make sure that to discuss remission with the doctor for the medical examination. If necessary, the doctor can refer the applicant to a psychiatrist or drug specialist for further examination and treatment.

If the government is unhappy with the medical examination, the officer can refer it to a panel of physicians at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for review. This can delay the case significantly. The best way to avoid this is to encourage the doctor performing the examination to include an attachment to the medical examination that describes the doctor's medical finding of remission in detail.

Getting Legal Help

This is a highly complicated area of the law, and any mistake can have serious consequences. An applicant for a green card or visa who has a past history of drug abuse or addiction might want to consult with an experienced immigration attorney to determine the best way to proceed, and for help preparing paperwork and appearing before U.S. government officials.

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