In American immigration law, the term “moral turpitude” first appeared in the Immigration Act of 1891, in which it was provided as a basis for excluding immigrants suspected of possessing low morals from entering the country or as grounds for deporting previously admitted immigrants.
The concept of “moral turpitude” can be traced to a Middle English expression term with Latin roots that means “shame” and connotes immoral behavior. In modern legal parlance, moral turpitude suggests behavior that is evil in and of itself and not merely because it is prohibited by law. For example, drunk driving is not a crime of moral turpitude, but drunk driving without a license is.
An elusive concept related more to cultural concepts of sin than to statutory law, moral turpitude is sometimes associated with the sins outlined in the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments. Ambiguity in the meaning of the term has allowed U.S. immigration officers such a wide latitude that they can rule to exclude or deport persons whom they personally dislike, including those presumed to engage in victimless crimes, such as consensual sexual conduct and substance abuse.
For example, immigrants suspected of being
The term “moral turpitude” encompasses a wide variety of actual crimes, which fall under four headings:
•Crimes against property, such as fraud and robbery and even shoplifting
•Crimes against government, most notably bribery, counterfeiting, and perjury
•Crimes against persons, including victimless offenses
•Aiding, abetting, or engaging in conspiracies to commit crimes of moral turpitude
Freilich, Joshua D., and Graeme Newman, eds. Crime and Immigration. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2007. New York State Defenders Association. Representing Immigrant Defendants in New York. 4th ed. New York: Author, 2008. Weissbrodt, David, and Laura Danielson. Immigration Law and Procedure in a Nutshell. 5th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2005.
Boutilier v. Immigration and Naturalization Service
Gay and lesbian immigrants
Immigration Act of 1891
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986