'Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude': The Constitutional and Persistent Immigration Law Doctrine


For over a century, American immigration law has provided that an alien is deportable for “crimes involving moral turpitude” (CIMT). For nearly as long, observers have lamented the persistence of the phrase, complaining of its antiquarianism and imprecision. These criticisms have ripened in recent years into the argument that the phrase is so vague as to be unconstitutional. Defenders of the phrase are scarce among judges and nonexistent in the scholarly community.

This Article offers a defense of the CIMT provisions, built upon a more thorough understanding of their history. It demonstrates that Congress has acknowledged objections to the CIMT provisions but ultimately rejected these criticisms. The recent void-for-vagueness precedents cited to support the invalidation of the CIMT provisions are, for the most part, inapposite. Furthermore, the argument that the CIMT provisions are indeterminate, because there is no moral consensus in American contemporary society, is overstated. The Article concludes that the CIMT provisions reflect and highlight the differences between criminal law, which punishes discrete acts, and immigration law, which sets a minimum moral threshold for inclusion in a political community. The CIMT provisions invest executive officials with a measure of discretion, channeled by precedent, that allows them to achieve the goals of immigration law.