Three-year-olds can represent themselves in court, a US immigration judge insists

Courtrooms are just bigger playpens, right?
Courtrooms are just bigger playpens, right?
Image: Reuters/Christof Stache
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Just in case you’d forgotten how deeply flawed the US immigration system is, senior Justice Department official Jack H. Weil is here to remind you.

As a longtime immigration judge, Weil was recently asked to give a deposition in federal court for a pending lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and several immigrants’ rights groups.

Here’s the gist of the suit: Under current US policy, people who must appear in immigration court have to either pay out of their pockets for legal representation or rely on pro bono services. The argument of the ACLU and the rights groups—which is contested by the Justice Department—is that the government has a responsibility to provide lawyers when the individuals are children.

Weil’s two cents? Those kids are fully capable of defending themselves.

“I’ve taught immigration law to literally three-year-olds and four-year-olds,” the judge, whose Justice Department responsibilities include training other immigration judges, said in his sworn testimony. “It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.”

He repeated himself later: “I’ve told you, I have trained three-year-olds and four-year-olds in immigration law.”

Civil rights experts responded to Weil’s comments with no small degree of shock. (Temple University professor and plaintiffs’ side witness Laurence Steinberg told the Washington Post, “I nearly fell off my chair when I read that deposition.”) A Justice Department spokesperson said Weil was “speaking in a personal capacity” and his statements “do not necessarily represent” the department’s views—adding that his words must also be taken in the context of a four-hour deposition.

That the Justice Department partially defends Weil’s remarks actually is even more troubling. According to the department, 42% of unaccompanied children who appear in deportation proceedings don’t have a lawyer. US Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in February he once saw a five-year-old girl “clutching a doll and so short she could barely see over the table to the microphone” summoned before a judge. If the government needs to take a closer look at any particular problem within its tangled fray of immigration policies, it’s this.