Recently, during federal court proceedings, Senior Justice Department official Jack H. Weil, (who, along with other responsibilities, is tasked with training other judges in proper procedure and conduct,) made a statement under oath that he believes three and four year old migrant children can learn immigration law well enough to be able to represent themselves in court, which would in turn save the citizens the costs of assigning taxpayer-funded attorneys to them.
“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Weil said. “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.”
Obviously, the backlash to this statement from both legal experts, and child psychology experts, was immediate and disparaging. Obviously immigration law is a deep and complex branch of practice, and children of that age are still learning how to cooperate with other children and develop fine motor skills, let alone represent themselves in a court of law.
“I nearly fell off my chair when I read that deposition,” said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, who is a witness for the plaintiffs in the Seattle case. “Three- and 4-year-olds do not yet have logical reasoning abilities. It’s preposterous, frankly, to think they could be taught enough about immigration law to be able to represent themselves in court.”
This testimony from Justice Weil came out during a case that is arguing for legal representation for every indigent child who cannot afford a lawyer to represent themselves in court. Immigrant rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union are both demanding that the courts be required to provide this. The Justice Department is contesting suit, and Weil has, in the aftermath of his statement receiving loud and virulent backlash, insisted that the statements that are being attributed to him do not “present an accurate assessment of my views on this topic” and are being “taken out of context.”
The ACLU officials are nonplused by this recant. “This is the person in charge of training immigration judges about how to treat children? And this is the witness the government puts forward to present their views as to how this is supposed to happen?” said ACLU deputy legal director of Southern California Ahilan Arulanantham, the attorney who questioned Weil under oath. “That is horrifying.”
According to statistics that were collected by the Justice Department, more than twenty thousand unaccompanied children that were involved in deportation proceedings that took place over the course of 18 months from July 2014, a whopping 42% of those children had no attorney. In many cases the children facing these charges do not speak English, and are relying on government-provided interpreters to understand what is happening to them, let alone to understand how to argue for themselves in court. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats recently introduced legislation stipulating that government-appointed counsel be afforded to all children in immigration court who had crossed the border alone or are victims of other duress such as abuse, torture or violence.