“Moral turpitude”

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.“Moral turpitude”[moral turpitude][a]Immigration Act of 1891;and “moral turpitude”[moral turpitude]“Moral turpitude”[moral turpitude][cat]CRIME;”Moral turpitude”[03620][cat]DEPORTATION;”Moral turpitude”[03620][cat]LAW ENFORCEMENT;”Moral turpitude”[03620][a]Immigration Act of 1891;and “moral turpitude”[moral turpitude]

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 Homosexuality;and “moral turpitude”[moral turpitude]homosexuals were usually rejected before 1973, when the Psychology;and homosexuality[homosexuality]American Psychiatric AssociationAmerican Psychiatric Association stopped calling homosexuality a mental disorder. However, gay people can still be excluded because the law allows exclusion of “psychopathic personalities” apart from crimes of “moral turpitude.” Foreigners who marry Americans in Marriage;same-sex[same sex]same-sex ceremonies have, for example, been excluded. Border agents have the power to stop persons from entering the country on the basis of a list of about thirty “indicators” of homosexuality while they survey visitors lined up at immigration checkpoints. Those who enter and are subsequently deemed sexual psychopaths may have their Passportspassports stamped “sexual deviate” as they leave the country, thereby subjecting them to the possibility of being incarcerated upon arrival in their home

Categories of Crimes

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

The[a]Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994 increased the number of “aggravated felonies” that can provide grounds for deportation. In 1996, the law was amended to permit the attorney general of the United States to deport, without a prior hearing, any person convicted of any recent crime of “moral turpitude.”“Moral turpitude”[moral turpitude]

Further Reading

  • 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

Congress, U.S.


Gay and lesbian immigrants

Immigration Act of 1891

Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Lennon, John